by Brenda and Robert Vale.  Thames & Hudson.  September, 2013. 208 p. ill. ISBN 9780500342855 (pbk.), $27.95.

Reviewed May 2014
Ana Noriega, Head of Acquisitions and Copyright Services, Katz Library, University of Maine at Augusta, ana.noriega@maine.edu

Childhood studies, specifically those that address material culture, are a small but growing field of inquiry.  The newest title from Brenda and Robert Vale (professors of architecture at Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand), offers detailed descriptions of building and mechanical toys that clearly reflect their creators’ vision of the world.  These toys, the authors assure us, are not to be taken lightly—one can see the influence of individual toys on future architectural works.  Whether those toys can be said to have influenced specific designs is never demonstrated as such, though the authors provide some representational arguments that make this a worthwhile endeavor.   For broader context, the reader may want to pick up a copy of Century of the child: Growing by design 1900-2000, an edited publication that corresponded with an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that ran, under the same title, from July 29-August 5, 2012.

The book is divided into chapters arranged chronologically.  The timeline covered begins just before the twentieth century, with toy rail lines and their not-yet-real modern buildings, and finishes with Lego sets and the incorporation of “green” architectural methods.  Between these two pillars, the book touches on everything from Lincoln Logs, Richter’s Blocks, Meccano, Bilt-E-Z, and Playplax, and ends with a robust bibliography as well as a thorough index.  Naturally, the chapter headings are very descriptive, but only in so far as one is familiar with the names of these particular toys.

Some readers may feel overwhelmed with the detailed descriptions of the toys, though the writing is clear and concise; it is worth struggling through any technical descriptions, as they yield the most prescient evidence of possible correlations between toy and builder.  Reproductions are helpful in this regard, and are plentiful (111 total).

If taken as anthropological artifacts, architectural or building toys may indeed contribute to our understanding of our built environment, providing a useful jumping-off point for scholarship about the impact children’s toys have on their sense of design, as well as the ways in which these objects contribute to the very adult world of art and architecture.  In addition to the often humorous text, the authors’ intensive review of the commercial creation and specifications of the individual toys is truly unique, thus making this book a worthwhile as well as enjoyable read for the beginner as well as the professional architect. 

©2014 ARLIS/NA