• Richard O

What Lego's Modular Buildings Mean to Me

For a large part of my life, the Lego Modular Building Series has occupied a special place in my creative heart. Five years ago, I received my first set, the Pet Shop, for Christmas in 2015. Today, I would like to take you through what makes this series so special to me and share my opinions on the controversies that have recently arisen surrounding it.


I have been riveted by Legos from a young age. In 2011, I attended the grand opening of the Lego Store in Pleasanton. I still keep the exclusive shirt (even though it is a childrens’ size Small) from that event tucked away in my closet as an ancient relic of the past. It’s safe to say that the message was received by my parents; growing up, I often got Lego City sets as presents. My favorite part of the City sets wasn’t the dozens of designs for cars and trucks that came out every year, it was the buildings. To me, that was what made a Lego City a “city.” It added a sense of realism to my imaginative layout. Yes, I had the fire trucks, but where do they come from? The fire station was there to add context. Yes, I had the minifigures, but where do they live? What do they do all day? The house and park sets added an extra dimension to the “story” that the Lego System of Play was designed to foster.


Yet, as I grew up, I began to realize a major flaw in those early sets. I had fallen for the trap of being satisfied with “playsets,” or Lego sets that left the back wall of the building out so that you could more easily play pretend with the minifigures in scenarios that took place inside the building. The first method I tried to fix this issue was to line the back of the set up against the wall, but even if the set had a flat back, which was not always the case, it looked strange having a mini building jutting out of a giant wall in my room. When that left me unsatisfied, I tried to put two buildings of similar height back to back, but since they were usually different widths, exposed edges would poke out awkwardly from one side. Either way, I was unable to create the immersive, realistic cityscape I had imagined.


That year, my parents gifted me the Pet Shop, the sixth (and my first) installment in the line of Lego Modular Buildings line of sets. By then, it had already become a legacy item: it had been around for over four years, which is an extremely long time for a Lego set to remain on store shelves. Instantly, I noticed something different about this set: it seemed more mature. Unlike Lego sets with a younger target audience, this set didn’t feature any characters in crazy scenarios; they just seemed like normal people doing normal things, such as painting a house, walking a dog, or fixing a bike. Then, on the right side of the box, I saw it: the building had a back! This is what I had been looking for. I just didn’t know it existed since I was not within its target audience. This is what I feel is an unfortunate decision, to say 16+ on a box that a 10-year-old could build in a day. If I had known about this series earlier, I could have looked into some of the earlier, now discontinued sets, which, in my opinion, are some of the best. The prices of The Grand Emporium, Fire Brigade, and Green Grocer, which were all sets released before the Pet Shop, have all at least doubled in price to order in new condition. In fact, at its cheapest, the Green Grocer has septupled in price. Even worse, the first set in the modular series, Cafe Corner, is now being sold for an average price of $2,800, or around vigintuple (20 times) the amount of its original price! To put that into perspective, you would have to pay $1.40 per piece! Today, these sets are nearly impossible to find due to both rarity and scalping.


From there, my collection expanded. By 2018, I had picked up the Palace Cinema, the Detective’s Office, and the Brick Bank. The “modular” aspect of the collection was coming together; I could attach the buildings side by side to create an entire street. With the unveiling of the 13th installment in LEGO’s Modular line, the Downtown Diner, however, controversy struck. Instead of following the precedent of just giving minifigures the classic Lego smile, the Lego designers decided to give each character a face with stylings. For example, the waitress at the diner had lipstick, and the boxer who practices upstairs had a mustache and bushy eyebrows. To me, this seemed like a bad decision. Across the internet, I have not found a single Lego fan who says that they prefer the stylized faces instead of sticking to the 11-year-long precedent of the classic smile. Not only were these sets meant to be more mature, but the stylings on the faces almost force a story upon the set, rather than leaving it up to the imagination of the builder. Still, I do not think that the Lego Group should avoid implementing a general story to each building, as we have designs of buildings such as the Brick Bank and the romantic Parisian Restaurant that play so well into the theme of a bank robbery and a marriage proposal. However, the characters themselves should not be forced to be fit into a single narrative. For such a subtle addition of detail, it takes away so much.


Another controversy was sparked with the release of the most recent modular building, The Police Station. Perhaps more infuriating to me than the continued minifigure head stylings was the choice to swap out the classic, sky blue box background on the box for a dark, lifeless box background, like the style of the Lego Technic Series. While this makes the sets seem more minimalistic and elegant, this is not what I feel the series represents, especially after implementing friendly face stylings. The addition of these two new features together sends a mixed, conflicting message. I greatly prefer the sunny, blue design with the skyline background that was around for the fifteen earlier sets, since that was more representative of true life and happiness. In contrast, I have no emotional reaction to the dead, dark background. Sure, the Modular series represents a sign of maturity, but it should be something that a Lego fan of any age can get behind. Like I said before, I wish for children who are ten or eleven years old now to become as engrossed in this series as I was when I was their age, not be turned away. Lego could leave that mood for the more advanced Technic line of sets.


More than the Lego Ideas line or even the Star Wars Ultimate Collectors’ Series, I feel that the Modular series is a necessity for any hard-core collector or casual fan of Lego. Today, I have seven sets: Pet Shop, Palace Cinema, Detective’s Office, Brick Bank, Downtown Diner, Parisian Restaurant, and Assembly Square, which are all sitting on top of my bookshelf. With the addition of lights which I bought from the third party company Lightailing, they are a pleasant sight to look at during stay-at-home Zoom classes. Today, two of my dream jobs are to be a civil engineer or the mayor of Walnut Creek, and I truly think Lego influenced me towards those realizations. To me, the modular series means a whole lot more than just the day or two that you spend putting it together and leaving it displayed on a shelf. It’s the feeling that the architecture and colors of the buildings evoke, and the happiness they bring when you connect them all to create an entire cheerful boulevard of activity.


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