Building Blocks

Building Blocks

Creating Architects for the Future

The RIBA is well known for the breadth of its collections. However, less widely appreciated is that we have also collected certain fun and ephemeral items such as architectural toys, in particular building blocks. It is not difficult to imagine what role these and other famous constructional toys, such as Lego and Meccano, might have had in developing creativity amongst architects, engineers and scientists. Indeed no less an architect than Frank Lloyd Wright attributed his childhood interest in geometry to German educator Friedrich Fröbel’s ‘gifts’, an educational toy  dating from the 1830s that included geometric blocks.

One of the most popular and well-known constructional toys were Richter’s Anker-Steinbaukasten or Anchor Stone Building sets. They were invented in 1875 by brothers Gustav and Otto Lilienthal but had limited success until 1880 when the German industrialist, Friedrich Richter, bought the patent. Unlike most constructional toys of that era traditionally which were made from wood, the sets were comprised of artificial stone blocks which relied on gravity and their mass for stability. The blocks were composed of chalk, sand and a linseed oil varnish colouring them in three basic colours: cream to represent limestone; red to represent brick and blue to represent slate.

Each set of stackable blocks was accompanied by instructional plans and designs indicating the blocks required for each stage as in this example illustrating designs for a bridge and two alternative gateways in a Roman setting. Given the slogan "Of absorbing interest for children and adults", it was a toy for everyone with literally thousands of block types and hundreds of different sets to collect including ‘The Bungalow Box’ and ‘The Suburban Box’ for the United States market featuring American suburban architecture. The largest set available contained nearly 4000 block and weighed over 80kg! Production in Rudolstadt, East Germany ended in 1963 but such was the enduring popularity of Anchor Blocks that production re-started in the 1990s and continues today.

By the early 20th century the world of construction toys was dominated by German manufacturers, in particular Richter’s Anchor Blocks. However, in 1917 British toy manufacturer Ernest Lott launched his own set of bricks, Lott’s Bricks, designed by the Art & Crafts architect Arnold Mitchell. Due to both anti-German sentiments and lack of imports due to the Great War Lott’s Bricks replaced Anchor Blocks in popularity. The success of Lott’s bricks was reportedly sealed when Queen Mary bought a set of the bricks from Lott when he exhibited them at the British Industries Fair in 1917.

Compared to Anchor Blocks the sets were much simpler and more ‘British’ in outline. The stone bricks came in uniform rectangular and wedge shapes with cardboard roofs and can be used to create a variety of buildings including, for example, this four-gabled Art & Crafts cottage based on Mitchell’s award winning ‘Ideal Home’ competition at the 1908 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. By the late 1930s in a concession to modernity one could now purchase ‘Lott’s New Series Bricks’ which even allowed the ability to construct modern houses with sun trap windows.

For other related items see also: toy shops, toys, nurseries and playrooms and Sir Edwin Lutyen’s designs for Queen Mary's Dolls' House. All of the images are available to download, purchase or license.

Feature by Jonathan Makepeace with thanks to Catriona Cornelius and Luke Walsh.

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103354 items
RIBA64332Berkeley Library, Trinity College, Dublin: students relaxing on the raked concrete benches by the east front entrance

 
RIBA64334Berkeley Library, Trinity College, Dublin: the entrance hall

 
RIBA12953Plan of Nottingham Castle


RIBA84028Plan of Nottingham Castle

 
RIBA84030View of Nottingham Castle with gabled houses and a church at the bottom of the hill

 
RIBA84031View of the north face of Nottingham Castle: elevation


RIBA3116-39"Experiments in Living" exhibition, Maples store, London: "Expando-Space", an expanding adaptable space

 
RIBA28004"Experiments in Living" exhibition, Maples store, London: multi-purpose foam block put to various uses

 
RIBA4684"Experiments in Living" exhibition, Maples store, London: over-bed cloud forms


RIBA4682"Experiments in Living" exhibition, Maples store, London: sketch annotated "Type of building for Expandospace Exhibition"

 
RIBA4683"Experiments in Living" exhibition, Maples store, London: sketch of room plan for Expandospace Exhibition

 
RIBA59992"Seco" prefabs


RIBA3455-59"Seco" temporary bungalow

 
RIBA59991"Seco" temporary bungalows, McLeod Road, Woolwich, London

 
RIBA42359(Former) Bedford Park Stores, Bath Road, Bedford Park, Turnham Green, London


RIBA34719[C] Space - DRL 10 Pavilion, Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London

 
RIBA34720[C] Space - DRL 10 Pavilion, Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London

 
RIBA105569’Devil’s Elbow’, Skyline Drive, Prospect Ridge, Nassau, for Mr & Mrs A. R. McDonald


RIBA13515202 Arena (Millenium Dome), North Greenwich, London, at dawn

 
RIBA13515102 Arena (Millenium Dome), North Greenwich, London, just before dawn

 
RIBA607081 & 2 Laurence Pountney Hill, City of London


RIBA607091 & 2 Laurence Pountney Hill, City of London

 
RIBA800331 & 3 Wells Rise, St John's Wood, London

 
RIBA692521 and 2 Coach and Horses Yard, Savile Row, Westminster, London


RIBA60351 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London

 
RIBA156561 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London: the entrance hall

 
RIBA1019831 Boulevard Charles V, Nancy


RIBA279821 Bridge Street, The Cross, Chester, Cheshire

 
RIBA523511 Broad Street, Stamford

 
RIBA83801 Chester Gate, Regent's Park, London: leather screen painted by Mary Adshead


RIBA83771 Chester Gate, Regent's Park, London: papier-mache tray painted by Mary Adshead

 
RIBA83791 Chester Gate, Regent's Park, London: screen painted by Mary Adshead

 
RIBA702071 Coleman Street, City of London


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