Thursday, September 12, 2013

Falling in Love with Architecture

My recent postings on the Biltmore Estate, and an Internet conversation on children's building blocks, got me to thinking about my own set of childhood building blocks.

When I was about seven, I bought a very colorful set of wooden building blocks that came from Japan. That was back in the days before Japan had geared up to become an industrial and technological giant, and when most of their exports were to be found in dime stores. I did in fact purchase the building blocks with my own savings at a dime store.

For me, the deciding factor in making the purchase was that the set had windows through which one could actually see. The frames were made of wood, and the glass was a ruby red acetate that backed onto orange paper panes. I thought the effect was stunning, and I still do.

It didn't hurt that the set included turned wooden columns, painted a shiny red suited for Pompeii or the Forbidden City.
Very soon one set wasn't enough, and I supplemented the original blocks with additional sets. And suddenly, like George Washington Vanderbilt, I imagined great buildings.

And now I want to make an observation about the value of such simple "building blocks" in today's digital world.

When I see young children and even toddlers consumed by digital games and digital imagery, I really believe that they're being shortchanged by not being encouraged to create with their own hands, and in three dimensions.

There is an interesting challenge and benefit in playing with simpler toys, which is that more imagination is then required. Fantasizing with simple 3-dimensional materials is a valuable process that engages multiple senses while also often teaching the rewards of delayed gratification. That in turn teaches us to be aware of the here and now, where we often miss beauty, inspiration and solutions.

Mark D. Ruffner   |
Where do small flights of fancy end up?

You can also read my posting
on Anchor Building Blocks, here.


  1. Totally agree with you, Mark, about children needing to handle materials.
    I was a teacher for over 20 years and for some of the time, I taught kindergarten. Yes, we had computers, but the kids liked to build with pattern blocks and the "regular blocks" I had, legos, and they loved creating their own marble mazes from wooden pieces.

    1. Thanks, Margie,

      I think the problem arises when children perceive the computer as a separate reality rather than a wonderfully useful tool.

  2. Do you suppose Bess of Hardwick had a set, (which encouraged "her" to "build" Hardwick Hall), which you show? "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall".

    1. Dear Columnist,

      I wouldn't be surprised if Robert Smythson, the architect of Hardwick Hall, had played with a set. And what would a young Eiffel have done with an Erector Set?

  3. Hello Mark, What great blocks. Often I admire the older "stone" ones, but these are so colorful and full of personality. One also can perhaps spot the genesis of your love for Greek key patterns.

    1. Hello, Jim,

      Alas, I did not acquire a set of Anchor Stone Blocks until I was well into adulthood. I think these Japanese ones, though, helped make me aware of architecture, and especially monumental architecture, at a young age.

      Yes, my love for Greek keys runs very deep, perhaps deeper than even I realize!

  4. Mark, of course you played with building blocks with Greek keys. Only you, my friend :)

  5. Dear Mark - I have just returned from my visit to Derbyshire only to discover that your "flight of fancy" has taken you to Derbyshire as well and to a house that I know so well. Bess's 16th century Hardwick Hall. Unforgettable for its walls of glass windows at a time when glass was such a scarce commodity, and her stone monogram of ES surmounted by a crown (Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury) emblazoned all around the parapets.

  6. Dear Rosemary,

    Welcome back! Hardwick Hall is a place that has always intrigued me, and I would love to take a tour of it. Some time ago I saw a one-hour documentary about it from the National Trust, and I was equally fascinated by Bess' life, marriages and constant amassing. I remember the special showed a huge conservation project of tapestries.

  7. I spent my entire childhood playing with blocks AND legos on my bedroom floor. So much so that at a certain later age, 13 or so, I had to see a dermotologist because I had rubbed a rough spot onto my chin over the years which had to be surgically removed (with luckily no scars!).

  8. Hi, Stefan,

    I'm pre-Legos, but I wish I'd had building materials that snapped together. So many of my masterpieces came tumbling down, but I guess that's an architectural lesson, too!

  9. I so agree with you that today's kids might, in some instances, be short changed when it comes to actual hands on playing. I make sure to play hands on with my granddaughter and I will be doing the same with my grandson when he's a bit older. We love lego and making collages and all other sorts of things including building blocks.

    1. Dear Yvette,

      Your grandchildren are lucky. When I think back on my own childhood, I realize now that there was a definite correlation between how simple the plything and how active the imagination.