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How Lego Architecture sets keep the kid alive in one Cali architect

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KAA Design’s Duan Tran talks to us about his fascination with Lego Architecture sets

Lego recently re-released the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum set.

Welcome back to Show & Tell (Micro Week edition)! For this installment, we spoke with architect Duan Tran about his love for—and collection of—Lego Architecture. Here’s what Tran had to say.

When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, one of my primary creative outlets was building with Legos. I would mimic a cool house that I had just seen in a movie like James Bond, for instance, or a cool spaceship. It was a part of me growing up and contributed a lot to my evolving creativity. It was also about tectonics—how things came together. I was always interested in what was inside the TV, not what was on it, so if the TV broke, my dad would let me take it apart so I could understand how it worked.

Lego came out with a series called Lego Architecture [in 2008], and it pays homage to buildings by classical masters not only here in the U.S., but also in Europe. Now, as an architect, I’m able to use them to reconnect to my childhood a little bit. I bought one or two sets and got really into it. My wife doesn’t quite understand why, as a 42-year-old, I’m still buying Legos, but it’s fun. It's gotten to the point where I have a display on my desk, and people have started gifting me sets during the holidays as a little joke.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

Inherent to the Lego fascination is that you’re actually building, creating, and understanding how the parts come together. It’s not necessarily about the end product. When I look at the work that I’m personally involved in today and how I design, a lot of it is tectonically based. It’s about parts and forms and elements that come together. It’s not just one big gestural, sculptural move, but about how these different architectural elements get put together almost like a puzzle.

My two favorite Lego Architecture sets are of Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright and Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. The genius behind the Lego process is that you’re building the model in a way that thoughtfully tells the story of the project, allowing you to really understand why or what the concept is.

Fallingwater as a building is iconic, but to be able to put it together in Lego form is fascinating because the set truly captures the house on the site. What makes Fallingwater so unique in real life is the fact that it’s built over a flowing waterfall. The Lego Architecture model actually captures that sentiment. You’re actually understanding and building it in a way that is educational.

First you build the site, and then you build the different floor plans on top of it—very much in the same design process that Wright probably undertook in real life—rather than building the model over here and then putting together some trees, then going back to the model. It’s all very sequential and thoughtful. Most of these other architectural models are pretty much just the house and then a flat board underneath, so there’s really no sense of context.

Same thing with Villa Savoye. Le Corbu is my favorite architect of all time, so I find a lot of attachment to this particular model. Villa Savoye, outside Paris, is a clean, white modern building, more simple and pristine than Fallingwater and actually more consistent with my personal aesthetic.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

The instructions for Villa Savoye explain that you’re supposed to do all the columns at the same time after one particular section. Then you build the floor plate. What’s the reason for that, you wonder, and the booklet explains it. Then you build the rooftop garden. It’s all iterative and sequential in a way where it’s storytelling rather than just putting a whole bunch of pieces together so you get the final cool thing.

I probably have at least ten or so sets, and quite honestly there’s a few that I haven’t opened up yet. Interestingly enough, a lot of these sets only run for a couple of months to a year before Lego stops producing them, so some of them have become completely priceless. As a collector, I don’t have the guts to actually open up some of these boxes, but maybe one day I will. One in particular, the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright, originally sold for under $100 and now it’s retailing for over a thousand dollars. I haven’t opened that box yet.

Duan Tran (AIA) is a partner at KAA Design in Los Angeles. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami Ohio and a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.