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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108594 items
RIBA4060Designs for Sleek Tower (left) and Verandah Tower (right), Brisbane, Queensland

 
RIBA4062Design for the restoration of the Parthenon, Athens

 
RIBA4063Design for remodelling Brownsea Castle, Brownsea Island, Dorset, for Colonel William Petrie Waugh: perspective


RIBA4064Design for the staircase of the chapel-library wing, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire

 
RIBA4065Design for the extension of the east end of the Church of St Bartholomew, Brighton

 
RIBA4066Competition design for the South Kensington Museum, London: view from the south-west


RIBA4067Design for new Senate Houses in St James's Park, London

 
RIBA4069Design for a wallpaper frieze entitled 'Seagull'

 
RIBA4070Design for an imperial palace for sovereigns of the British Empire: perspective of one of the courtyards


RIBA4073Design for a library bookcase, Knightshayes Court, near Tiverton, Devon

 
RIBA4074Design for the Bishop's throne, Cathedral Church of Saint Finn Barr, Cork

 
RIBA4076View from the cottage of Humphry Repton at Hare Street, Essex, before proposed alterations


RIBA4077Competition design for the Rathaus, Hamburg

 
RIBA4078Designs for the New Bodleian Library, Oxford: perspective from Trinity College gardens

 
RIBA4079Designs for Oakhurst, Ropes Lane, Fernhurst, West Sussex, for Mrs E. F. Chester: perspective from the north-west


RIBA4080Designs for Dixcot, North Drive, Tooting Bec Common, London, for R. W. Essex: perspective of entrance front

 
RIBA4081Design for a poster for the Central Liquor Control Board entitled 'Use and Beauty' to decorate a pub or canteen, possibly in the Carlisle area

 
RIBA4082Design for a wallpaper entitled 'Bushey' produced by Essex and Company


RIBA4083Design for a wallpaper frieze entitled 'Shallop' showing shallops (boats), birds and islands

 
RIBA4084Design for a wallpaper and tapestry produced by Essex and Company to honour Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897

 
RIBA4085Design, prossibly for a wallpaper, showing stylized oak leaves and acorns


RIBA4086Design for a wallpaper and textile showing a bird among leaves, flowers and berries

 
RIBA4087Design for the 'River Rug'

 
RIBA4088Edwin Smith and Olive Cook


RIBA4089Olive Cook

 
RIBA4090Edwin Smith

 
RIBA4091Edwin Smith


RIBA4092Edwin Smith

 
RIBA4094Edwin Smith and Olive Cook in the garden, 9A Church Row, Hampstead, London

 
RIBA4095Preliminary design for Crooksbury House, near Farnham, Surrey


RIBA4096Unexecuted designs for a country house on the Hudson River, New York State, for Mr E. H. Harriman: perspective sketch of entrance front

 
RIBA4097Design for the dining room sideboard, Munstead Wood, Godalming

 
RIBA4098Unexecuted design for the Grand Foyer, International Music Hall and Opera House, Hyde Park, London


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