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
RIBA372737 Bidston Road, Oxton, Birkenhead, Merseyside: the dining room

 
RIBA3728Tricorn Shopping Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire: the vehicle ramp at the west corner of site

 
RIBA3729Tricorn Shopping Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire: the front along Market Way


RIBA3734Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, New York

 
RIBA3735World Trade Center, New York

 
RIBA3736House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London: the sitting room


RIBA3737Design for the sitting room of penthouse flat, 26 Broadwalk House, 51 Hyde Park Gate, London

 
RIBA3738Odeon cinema, Fortis Green Road, Muswell Hill, London: the ticket booth

 
RIBA3740House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London: the kitchen


RIBA3741Architect's home, Rungsted Kyst

 
RIBA3742Wildwood, Princes Drive, Oxshott, Surrey: the living room and hall

 
RIBA3743Wildwood, Princes Drive, Oxshott, Surrey: the kitchen


RIBA37441 Royal Crescent, Bath

 
RIBA3745Chrysler Building, 405 Lexington Avenue, New York: close-up of the steel-clad pinnacle

 
RIBA3746Forte's Crescent Restaurant, Festival of Britain, Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea, London


RIBA3747Dell Restaurant, Hyde Park, London

 
RIBA3749Casa del Fascio, Piazza del Popolo, Como

 
RIBA3750Garden seat, Rousham


RIBA3751Thomas Farnolls Pritchard

 
RIBA3753Chiswick House, London: detail of the Corinthian columns

 
RIBA3754Patrick Nuttgens


RIBA3755Stephen Rowland Pierce

 
RIBA3756Sir Donald Gibson

 
RIBA3757Theatre of Bacchus, Athens, with James 'Athenian' Stuart shown sketching in the foreground


RIBA3758Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), Alhambra, Granada

 
RIBA3759Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh

 
RIBA3760Mosque and shrine of Moulay Idris II, Fez


RIBA3761Tiles and decorative plasterwork, Alhambra, Granada

 
RIBA3762Great Mosque (Mezquita), Cordoba: the dome over the bay in front of the Mihrab

 
RIBA3763Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo: the arcades


RIBA3764Alhambra, Granada: Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters) looking towards the Mirador de la Daraxa

 
RIBA3765James Stirling

 
RIBA3767Hatfield Technical College, Hertfordshire: the assembly hall and dining block with sculptural panel by Trevor Tennant based on the college plan


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