Brick by Brick


One writer explores Birmingham’s BrickFair, a LEGO convention, to discover what makes LEGO lovers build.

Written by Phillip Ratliff

Photos by Beau Gustafson

 

Consumed in a single optical gulp, BrickFair is spectacularly anachronistic, a sprawling make-believe landscape of castles and locomotives, spacecraft and robotics, Harry Potter and Doctor Who. In this world of non sequiturs, BrickFair’s attendees revealed another curious fact: Many of LEGO’s most ardent devotees are grown-ups. Sure, there are children at BrickFair, hundreds of them, there to absorb LEGO eye candy and snap together a chunky, kid-friendly version of the plastic block at miniature workstations. But what’s striking to the outsider is the furrowed, even wizened faces in the BrickFair crowd. There are engineers, adult-age, self-described LEGO nerds, building large societies of bridges and trains. There are LEGO dealers, also adults, trading in discontinued LEGO pieces to builders desperate to replace a lost piece in a kit or find a one-off piece for an original project. And there are lots of grown-ups just walking around, untethered to children, taking in the handiwork of other skilled builders, lost in the array of miniature worlds.

There’s a name for this sort of builder: Adult Fan of LEGO, or AFOL for short. They face many challenges beyond those pertaining to spatial logic. AFOLs must balance working a job and maybe raising a family with their passion for plastic brick worlds.  Positioning extended build times within the constraints of gainful employment and family obligations requires its own sort of organizational ingenuity. “If I’m in a big project, I’ll spend hours a day working on it. In between builds, I’ll spend my time researching and thinking about my next project. I can spend eight to 10 months, a couple of hours each day, working around school and on off days,” says veteran builder and LEGO activist Stefan Formentano.

Formentano is known around BrickFair for his work as a builder and as one of the Birmingham LEGO community’s founders. The 24-year-old UAB business major is gregarious, forever smiling. His name frequently arises in conversations with AFOLs at BrickFair. Formentano is married, to someone whom he says gets him. Although he is clearly obsessed with building, he possesses the appealing trait of being able to get past LEGO group-speak to communicate with the layperson. Formentano invited me to track him down at his place of employment, which is none other than the Hoover Galleria LEGO store, to unlock what had been a mystery to me for some time—namely, what motivates grown-ups to devote great swaths of personal time to the construction of alternative toy universes.

Stefan Formentano

Stefan Formentano

Formentano traces his interest in LEGO building back to age 3, when his mother gave him his first set of bricks. Formentano believes that his fellow home-schooled kids are especially drawn to the creative, self-directed problem solving required of a large-scale LEGO build. He continued to build enthusiastically for years, mastering basic then sophisticated techniques, until his teens, when he exchanged building for a more robust social life. The pattern is so common in adult builders’ personal histories that they have given the teenaged, nonbuilding years a name: the dark ages. Formentano has obviously come through the dark ages with a rekindled passion. Today, he is an assistant manager at the LEGO store, with a dream of working in the LEGO corporate office after he finishes his degree.

Formentano’s passion is for building large castles, a popular genre among adult builders. (Their online community can be found at www.classic-castle.com.) He prefers building castles that interact organically with the surrounding LEGO landscape. One of his favorite pieces is a castle built on a hillside looking down on a medieval village. He began the piece by drawing a rough sketch, just to give him some direction and then let the castle “go where it goes.” Formentano says he has charted a middle course for himself, admitting both sketched-out and improvised building into his work process. Some prefer improvised building, designing and snapping bricks as they go, he says. Others have an intricate planning process that incorporates LEGO Digital Designer, a brick-by-brick computer program that tells the builder precisely what pieces are needed. Formentano’s quasi-improvised method, he says, is well-suited to his favorite build subject. German castles have lots of angles. They roll with landscapes and emanate roads that tumble into villages. “There aren’t a lot of pure right angles. It can look impressive to nonfans,” he says. His approach to erecting castles had him building in ways he did not expect, leading him to search for new ways to manipulate a brick or solve a problem. “At some point, you hit issues. Bricks don’t line up. You have to modify,” he explains.

While LEGO building is ultimately done alone, it is not without a social dynamic. Formentano credits working with other adult LEGO enthusiasts with helping him discover new techniques, and BrickFair itself is a testament to LEGO building’s power to rally even the most unsociable of builders around the common causes of finding a needed brick, learning a new technique, or seeing how well you and your bricks stack up.  Reconnoitering BrickFair, visually and through casual interviews, revealed a menagerie of complex LEGO projects including train stations, castles, robots, and cities. One conclusion is inescapable: LEGO builders like to work together on massive projects. Many a cityscape or medieval village has been realized in part through collaboration, with builders mapping out the landscape and making assignments together then working individually to create a particular structure. Creating impressively large projects demands social organization. Huntsville, a town known for its engineers, formed its LEGO User Group, or LUG, around the building of functioning train depots.

The task of organizing Birmingham’s LUG fell to Formentano, somewhat by accident. While working at the LEGO store, Formentano pressured his boss at the LEGO store to let him display one of his creations in one of the store’s shadow boxes, typically reserved for the work of LUGs. His boss agreed, but Formentano decided that the best way to gain consistent access to the coveted shadow box display was to form a local organization, the Magic City LEGO User Group, or MCLUG. Soon, MCLUG was creating on a grand scale.

I wondered how Formentano and the MCLUG members felt about The Lego Movie, one of my only cultural touchstones at that point. “Funny!” he says. The jokes were clearly aimed at AFOLs, drawing a sharp distinction between kids who just love to build, kits, free build, and adult builders, who are obsessive and occasionally cranky about having people touch their work. Formentano has his own LEGO room, the concession of his sympathetic and indulgent wife, Shelby, who is currently pursuing a teaching degree at UAB.

My conversation with Formentano took place several weeks after a failed attempt at AFOL conversion, accepting LEGOs into my heart, as it were. I quickly discarded the notion and instead had my two girls, Bailey, age 11, and Avery, age 8, baptized and admitted as LEGO catechumens through the introduction of several kits into the household. I took the skeptic’s position, choosing to simply observe them in action, watching intently for clues about what about LEGO building grips certain individuals. Both girls worked cooperatively to complete two 300-piece kits, both The Lego Movie scenes, while I lurked.

My Jane Goodall-esque gaze eventually detected a glimmer in Bailey’s eye, a special deftness of finger, a purposeful snapping that was unlike Avery’s relaxed approach to building. Bailey has long demonstrated a penchant for organizing squares and rectangles into patterns she found amusing. The trait first manifested when she was 12 months old, sitting upright in her high chair in front of a haphazard jumble of wooden blocks. I left the room to fetch her food and returned to find that Bailey had arranged the blocks in a neat row. When she could walk, Bailey developed a fondness for an unlikely sort of object, the thin, tube-like cardboard packaging that holds a dozen soda cans. Empty soda cartons, Bailey found, could be worn on the arms and legs like a cardboard exoskeleton or stacked to create towers and rooms. I suspect that her later infatuation with ornithology was Bailey’s first attempt to take complex phenomena, the dappled and splendidly varied world of birds, and place it within neat taxonomic boxes of sorts. Could it be that she has the LEGO gift that was also visited upon Formentano at age 3?

When Formentano finished our interview at the Galleria, I followed him into the LEGO store, where his shift was about to begin, and purchased two kits, one for each Ratliff child. The kits each cost $13 each and depicted in glossy rectangularity scenes from the movie Star Wars. Later, I set the kits on the kitchen counter and announced to Bailey and Avery their good fortune, that I had procured a gift for each of them, their very own, albeit smaller LEGO kits. (I did not say that I had opted for two kits because that would allow for more accurate readings.) Bailey and Avery surveyed the kits, made note of the piece count (one was 100 and the other was 99, a slight discrepancy I feared would set off a battle.) I left Bailey and Avery with the kits, determined to let nature run its course.

The next day, Bailey had completed her kit. Avery, on the other hand, had moved on to something else, in all likelihood, socializing with her best friend. Whether their responses indicate that Bailey will take up building, eventually to become an AFOL, who knows? But she does seem to grasp LEGO building’s challenges and rewards much more readily than her sister, who enjoys moving people around with the deftness Formentano brings to snapping together bricks in a castle. I reached the conclusion that I do not know what makes someone more prone to LEGO building, just that some people are, and I am OK with this mystery. My conclusion follows from a simple fact about the universe: I don’t know what makes anyone do anything, perhaps least of all the two individuals I know best and who each shares half my DNA and, collectively, all of my bad habits. Hands and minds find what fits. Barring war, depression, and addiction to TV and other unhealthy substances, those minds and hands set out to build the worlds they want to build. I can think of many worse worlds and only a few better than those made out of LEGOs.

One Response to “Brick by Brick”

  1. Ady says:

    Lego is a timeless classic!! I wonder if building with lego as a child somehow influenced me to become a builder in real life?!

Leave a Reply