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An Architectural Toy




Our faculty has been offering an International Summer School and we were holding a workshop during this activity. One of our exercises was about making thoughts for architectural toys.

A student has come up with an idea that was simple but open to developments. This made us think about architectural toys and their utilization in education.

It would be quite useful if there were cheap and smart toys, especially in developing countries. This exercise showed us that architecture students can make promising proposals and such exercises can be refreshing for students if they can be realized from time to time.

“… Play is the nicest thing nature ever did for us…”

Paul MacLean

“… Learning is at its best when it is deadly serious and very playful at the same time..”

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot


The Faculty of Architecture at the Eastern Mediterranean University held its 2nd International Summer School between the 19th and 30th of June 2006 in Gazimağusa, Cyprus. We were taking part in this activity with a workshop. This article is about an interesting design effort that came up during this workshop.

When the author accepted the offer of the faculty for him to hold a workshop during its International Summer School activities, he decided together with his colleague Ms. Rafooneh Mokhtarshahi, a M. Arch. and doctorate student, to concentrate on the topic of “creativity in architecture”. Various exercises were performed during the two weeks of the workshop, related to creativity in architectural design.

One of these exercises was about the design of a toy; students were given the assignment to design a new architectural toy. In a relatively short time they had to deliver design ideas for a toy that would be of help in developing skills or in giving ideas about some aspects of architecture when played by children. Formal, structural, constructional or functional aspects could be emphasized according to the students’ choices.

A short lecture was held about architectural toys at the beginning and students were shown examples of some toys such as “LEGO” and “GEOMAG”, where the pieces of the toy could be put together to create some kind of construction. The modular character of the pieces used in these toys was brought to the attention of students. They were also shown a toy idea developed by the author that uses matchboxes and matchsticks. Students were allowed to play with them before they started delivering their own design ideas.

A fourth year student, Pınar Alsaç, developed some ideas for an architectural toy during this exercise. Because of the limited time this had to be terminated at the design idea level. But its potential deserves attention.

What are architectural toys?

A collector of such toys, Geoff Lilleker, gives a quite good definition of architectural toys:

“..ARCHITECTURAL CONSTRUCTION SETS are the kind that children put together out of various pieces in order to make a miniature building, monument, toy village, landscape, some form of playhouse, or an engineering structure (such as a bridge, tower, or Ferris wheel), guided by a set of instructions, a parent or teacher, or solely by their imaginations..”

Ever since the German pedagogue Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852) devised his principles in the 19th century, there has been an expansion in architectural toys. Every year new ones appear on the market, some of them with a longer success rate than others. In some cases architects are also involved in their design and development.

The educational value of these toys cannot be overlooked. A child playing with such toys develops various skills and gains some kind of understanding about matters related to architecture and construction beside other advantages. It is a well known fact that Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was playing with a wooden construction set built after the original “Froebel blocks” that his mother bought for him.  Later he was mentioning the stimulating effect of this on his own development. Norman Brosterman mentions other celebrities who have benefited from the pedagogical ideas developed by Froebel, one of whom was Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

There is a serious investigation on the influence of this toy regarding to Wright’s architectural ideas, belonging to Terry W. Knight.  The manufacturer of a similar toy mentions that Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was also playing with their construction set in his youth, which might have affected his career, and apparently he was continuing to do so until his later years as a kind of hobby.  Even at the age of computers Froebel blocks occupy the minds of designers. The Digital Design Laboratory of the School of Architecture at the University of Columbia has given exercises that had to use such elements in its “Advanced Computer Aided Design” courses.

Some architects were also involved in the design of these toys. A German set called “Ankerbausteine” (Anchor building blocks), which uses natural stone instead of wood for its pieces, has been basing partly on the designs of Gustav Lilienthal (1849-1933), who was an architect, together with his brother Otto (1848-1896), who was an engineer and aviator.  Bruno Taut (1880-1938) has designed building blocks to be made out of colored glass at the beginning of 1920’s. Such a set was shown in a recent exhibition held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other architects are also known for their innovative design ideas for games and puzzles, which can also be considered as special kinds of toys. Japanese architect Akio Hizume devised a scientific toy (which he calls “Star Cage”) in 1999. Later he constructed structural sculptures basing on the ideas developed for this toy. With a number of self-supporting bamboo sticks he was able to build demonstrative spheres, towers and tunnels in Japan, Indonesia, Austria, Germany, U.S.A. and Switzerland.

Structural engineers are also no exceptions. A distinguished architect-engineer, Santiago Calatrava says, “..My approach to design begins with the creation of toys and games that can give plastic expression to the principles of statics..” He then goes on explaining how he enjoyed constructing such games in his childhood with the items he found in his toy box, continuing with the description of some of his serious designs.  Calatrava is also known for his structural sculptures that look very much like toys.

Although there is some research about how play and games can be applied in the education of design and architecture, fewer thoughts seem to be spent about the influence and educational value of architectural toys for children by architects and design tutors. One reported research belongs to Ms. Tamar Zinguer.  There are also reports about the exhibitions held by various architectural organizations that show collections of such toys. Few articles seem to have appeared in some serious publications concerning this matter, one belonging to Witold Rybczynski, a professor of architecture at McGill University.

Lack of interest on this subject is more noticeable when we compare economically developed countries with that of developing ones. In the economically developed countries the value of such toys is understood and appreciated; the production and the sale of such toys in these countries indicate this clearly. On the other hand, economically underdeveloped countries have much less to offer, they do not produce such toys, although imported examples or licensed and not licensed copies may be on their markets. Because of this less is reported about the design efforts from these countries; there is less published material about architectural toys.

Since these countries need skilled individuals to solve their problems, to start with their training as children seems to be of importance. One of the most efficient ways of doing this is by offering them relatively cheap and smart toys during their childhood. Not only toy manufacturers but also parents, educators and designers should be concerned with this problem.

The author of this article is a design instructor. He is interested in the play-aspects during the design tutoring process and tries to achieve a playful attitude in his approach. He believes that such an approach encourages the students in making more experiments, in taking risks, in learning by making mistakes, which are some properties of play. This means finding and applying new design ideas and being more open-minded during the design studio. And when students understand that this approach yields better designs, they also enjoy what they do.

This design tutoring approach foresees a start by building models. At the beginning of a design studio students are asked to build sketch models and to make experiments with them. This is a free 3-dimensional exercise, similar to their basic design exercises. It means that students should not build realistic models, they should feel themselves free to create formal ideas, but their models have to contain some design ideas or apply and show some design principles. A colleague, Dr. Beril Özmen Mayer, has coined the term “thematic models” for these models.

After they have experimented enough with their thematic models students are asked to convert the resulting design ideas into “architectonic models” without losing their initial conceptual and formal ideas. If this is successfully achieved students are then asked to start checking their design ideas according to the site and climatic conditions, according to the structural system, according to the functions that the building contains, etc. They make necessary changes if their initial ideas do not fulfill these requirements.

The results of such an approach are astoundingly successful. Since this has been reported in some publications written with the co-authorship of colleagues, the author does not intend to go into the details of it here. One of these reports made the third place in an international essay-writing competition about new approaches in design education organized by the periodical Open House International in 2005.

The interest and investigations of the author about architectural toys are based on such previous activities and experiences. He has been mentioning about the play aspects in architecture and creativity in one of his studies as early as 1997.  All of these have initiated him to think more about the play aspects in design education.

Design in the education of architecture means to work on imaginary projects; however realistic their subjects may be and play aspects can be applied to it easily. In such an approach models built by students can be considered as toys. The author has observed that this approach attracts the attention of the students; they are more relaxed during the design sessions and happy with the results at the end of the semester. After all, play is one of the most efficient ways of teaching, and working on 3-dimensional models makes students understand many problems of their designs, which would take longer otherwise.


Now we can come back to the exercise in our workshop. When the assignment was given, the above mentioned student started by making some sketches on paper. These were simple geometric shapes, triangles, squares, hexagons, circles. Then she moved on to draw 3-dimensional shapes initiated by them, in form of various prisms and cylinders. At one time it must have occurred to her to make holes in these prisms, again in form of basic geometric shapes.

As the next step she made rough paper models to test and show her ideas. The potential of this was observed and approved by the tutors; they encouraged her to work further. The student then moved on to make some more accurate drawings on her laptop. The prisms and cylinders became more clearly defined. She was able to show that multiple combinations were possible and by using color on different pieces the toy can be made more attractive. What has started as a simple form-matching toy turned out to be a constructional one.

This opened the way for further variations and attracted the attention of its designer to such a degree that she went on creating a short animated presentation, demonstrating how the rods (pieces with holes) and sticks (pieces without holes) could be interlocked to yield simple structures. The animation was a great success and it was one of main reasons for the workshop to receive the first prize of the jury, which was evaluating the work done in all the workshops of the mentioned summer school.

Actual design work terminated at that point. Several private discussion and speculation sessions about the potential and further development of the toy followed later on and its initiator was either suggesting some on own or was in agreement with the primary proposal. She also agreed that her ideas can be used in this article.

What is “Pen-Toyz”?

The designer of the toy, Pınar Alsaç, did not have a name for it at the beginning. Later she decided to call it “Pen-Toyz”, the first half of the word indicating that its pieces can penetrate into each other to form structures.

The main idea is fairly simple: There are a number of relatively thick rods with some geometrically shaped holes on them. There are also a number of relatively thin sticks in the shape of different prisms and cylinders. These can be stuck into or penetrated entirely through the holes of the rods by matching shapes of the sticks with the holes on the rods. Both rods and sticks base on modular units so that they would allow a variety of combinations by using similar units. The play can go on by joining these elements to create a construction after a plan or randomly.

The rods and sticks can be made out of wood or high quality plastic. If it is going to be manufactured their sizes and proportions can be estimated by considering various aspects such as better handling by children, lengths and thicknesses of the rods and sticks, sizes, shapes, position and the number of the holes on the rods, etc. Some of these can be subject to changes like the thicknesses and lengths of the rods and sticks according to the composition of a set. Their number can also vary to obtain different set sizes. It is important to make the finishing of the pieces with some precision so that a smooth penetration is possible, not too tight and not too loose.

The toy offers a broad range of play possibilities. Its pieces can be stapled on top of each other or put side by side to create simple structures, forms or arrangements. As it is the case in many building blocks, this gives an insight about the simplest structural system, namely solid (or load-bearing) structures. Penetrating the sticks through the rods can yield more complex structures. Through this more stable structures can be obtained.

After such an operation the toy starts to demonstrate properties of another, rather complex structure, namely that of skeletal frame systems because the pieces would be interlocking into each other to become parts of a structural whole. The columns and beams of reinforced concrete constructions base on a very similar principle. Without any kind of theoretical instruction children would be able to develop some kind of understanding of structural systems and construction methods applied in building and architecture. It is this property that makes the toy interesting.

It is also possible to make figures that make use of both structural systems. Of course the pieces can be used for counting, sorting, matching, comparing, measuring, assembling, etc. by younger children too, which would extend the play possibilities of the toy.

The innovative idea of this toy is to have holes on the rods for sticks to penetrate through. Generally wooden building blocks do not have such an interlocking system. Metal toys such as “Meccano” have holes on their relatively thinner pieces, but they apply another kind of joining system, namely that of nuts and bolts.

One of the rare examples in this connection is the so called “Lincoln Logs”, invented by John Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, during the years 1916-17 and has a successful marketing history since 1918.  This toy bases on cylindrical wooden rods that have notches carved near to their ends. When a structure is built with them these notches fit into each other to keep the rods together, to keep the heights of the rods even and to give the structure stability by locking the rods into a kind of bracket.

This has its parallels in real constructions, namely in solid wooden structures. Such constructions are applied in the architecture of many countries that posses excessive sources of timber such as the Scandinavian ones. It was also used in the early days of the United States and may still be in use for simple buildings. One of the presidents of this country, Abraham Lincoln, was said to have spent his childhood in a log cabin, the name of the toy makes a reference to this.

There are similar toys manufactured elsewhere. A Russian set called “Konstruktor – Teremok”, has been developed by the brothers Alexander and Mikhail Khasin in the town of Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk.  This toy uses square prismatic rods, also with notches. A Czech company produces sets basing on the same principle in the town of Fryšták, developed by Pavel Hrůza senior and junior from 1991 onwards.  Since this kind of construction is quite suitable for prefabrication some construction companies apply it for their prefabricated houses.

The reason many wooden construction toys do not make use of holes is probably because it is not easy and cheap to make them. But thanks to Laser cutting technology making holes with different geometrical shapes may no longer be a difficult and expensive task. Its application will be able to make very clean holes in wood and the surfaces can be polished faultlessly. Producing the pieces of the toy out of high quality plastics will also not create any problems.

It is possible to produce this toy with conventional wood-working techniques, even in developing countries. Those who are familiar with carpentry will remember that such joints are used in many furniture constructions. A Turkish furniture company is offering wine bottle holders consisting out of similar “rods” and “sticks” that interlock into each other to provide stability.

One of our students reminded us that recently this company started to sell such units in packages without putting them together. The customer receives a package of rods and sticks, which can be assembled by him according to his taste and needs. If necessary it can be extend later on, holes on all four sides of the rods making corner arrangements possible too.  We ordered such a package and saw that it has striking similarities with “PenToyz”. We experimented with it by opening new holes in the middle and pits on both ends of its rods, by introducing longer sticks, etc.

“Pen-Toyz” seems to be open to development and extensions. Besides having a variety in the lengths of the rods and sticks, new pieces can be added to it. In this connection rectangular prisms of different sizes and thicknesses come to mind. Such pieces may or may not have holes in them, depending how and where they are going to be used. It can also be simplified by restricting the shape and number of the holes.

It is possible to produce sets with different number of pieces, and of course using more than one set would increase the possibilities of the toy by allowing the construction of larger and more complex structures. If some pits can be made on both ends of the rods, they can be joined with each other by shorter sticks (made for that purpose) to increase the length of the rods. If smaller cubes with through-going holes on all sides are added to the set they can be used to increase the lengths of sticks. If octagonal, cylindrical or spherical pieces are used instead of these cubes they would allow diagonal connections too, besides increasing the number of the geometrical shapes used by the toy.

Other ideas can be applied for extensions as some of them are offered by similar toys. Window and door units or roofs can be added to the basic set to achieve more realistic results. Figures of human beings, animals and trees as well as furniture pieces and model vehicles can be added to the set for its enrichment. Of course instructions for constructing different kinds of models should also be included in a set. Since putting the pieces back into the box is also an essential part of educational toys, the box of the “Pen-Toyz” will need a careful design too.

Paper models of the toy indicate that the rods can also have empty cores that allow some kind of visibility. But this may make the toy more fragile. Perhaps the pieces can be produced out of metal as a remedy for this. It would be easy to punch the holes on a sheet of metal and fold it into the form of the rods. Sticks may be easier to produce. Aluminum tube production technology may be useful here. If some extra effort can be spent on one end of the pieces by making them slightly smaller, it would also be possible to stick the rods and sticks into each other to get longer ones. Polished and painted in attractive colors metal may also provide a suitable material for this toy with different kinds of advantages such as being stronger.

Glass and ceramics may not be very suitable for rods but they can be used for sticks. Plexiglas may prove itself to be a suitable material too. Bamboo sticks with different diameters can also be used for both pieces if they are handy. But then, why should we limit ourselves with only one material? Sets that offer rods and sticks out of different materials used in a mixed manner may not only be more educational, they can also be more attractive.

“Pen-Toyz” may not be very cheap to produce, but even rough estimates show that it would not be very expensive too.  It could be played by children of various ages starting with kindergarten and higher. If built up-to-scale, figures constructed out of it can be used by model train hobbyists for various constructions such as towers, bridges, wind mills, Ferris wheels, etc. It can also be used by students for model making purposes and even the instructors of structure courses can use them to demonstrate some principles of statics or to make experiments with them.

Some after thoughts

After their industrial production in the 19th century architectural toys (or construction kits as they are referred to sometimes) seem to continue their development. They do not attract only the attention of children but grownups too. There are even some specialized sets with the pieces of which it is possible to build stylistically accurate models.

But even in their simplest forms such toys retain their educational values. A short report on a web-page of the Internet gives an example of this. It says,

“..Ivy High School Building Blocks for Creativity
(Ivy High School is an alternative school in Fallbrook, California)

What does a famous architect, a talented Ivy teacher and her students have in common? They’re all blockheads, that’s what. Need an explanation? Here’s the story:

Ivy art instructor, Mary Obenauf, learned that the renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, attributed much of his later success to playing with blocks in his early childhood. Perhaps elementary age students could increase their physical coordination and spatial visualization skills and have fun! Now there’s a winning concept!

First, students of the Fallbrook High School woodworking program used their skills to design wooden building blocks, determine a budget, and produce the cut blocks. Next, the Ivy art classes used their artistic skills to decorate the wooden blocks. The first finished sets were donated to the Vivian Banks Charter School on the Pala Indian Reservation.

According to Ms. Obenauf, “Young children are able to make the leap from structured play to intellectual learning very quickly. The use of building blocks simply builds on the natural tendency of children to make sense of the world by using their senses” ..”

This can happen anywhere on the world. Children, especially those in developing countries are in urgent need for toys like that. The realization of this will not only result in better architecture students and architects, it will also create better clients, users, contractors, administrators and politicians, who are going to be in decisive positions about the built environment later on.

Above described toy could easily accomplish this or at least be of help in fulfilling the principles devised by Froebel. A toy manufacturer quotes them on its web-page. It may be interesting to remember them once more:

“..Frederick Fröbel, the founder of the kindergarten, identified six very important benefits of early education. At least four of them are best taught with Anchor building blocks; computers can not compete.

The very first set teaches the ability to reproduce, in three dimensions, a design drawn in two dimensions.

Second, just putting the stones back into the box teaches the ability to place irregular three dimensional objects according to a two dimensional plan.

A third important educational benefit is the ability to coordinate a picture and a cross section drawing in making a three dimensional structure. All sets put a premium on attention to detail and accurate observation. The child knows that the correct information, and all of the necessary information, is given in the building plans; it is up to the child to find it in the plans.

Since the number of stones in a set is limited, the child learns to observe detail and select the correct object (stone) based on the information presented — the fourth major educational benefit.  Many parents may find that their skills in these areas are not as good as they might be; so they would do well to do a little building themselves a little before offering to help their children..”

Before closing this article let us take a short look at the advantages “Pen-Toyz” once more:

•    It is possible to construct realistic figures in form of buildings or abstract figures in form of structural sculptures with its pieces

•    It gives insight to formal and structural aspects of architecture,  construction and design principles besides providing other kinds of play possibilities

•    It is possible to make some structural experiments with it for the students of architecture, it can also be used for model building

Architectural toys can be seen as models and they can be used to test and to demonstrate many design ideas, especially about structural systems. It is not a coincidence that the manufacturers of such a toy, “Polymorf”, are maintaining a web-page on the Internet devoted to “..structural stability..” as they call it, which contains serious information about structural systems that can be realized with this toy in form of understandable lessons.

“Pen-Toyz” seems to be suitable for something like that. It can be used to make comparisons between two different structural systems, namely solid and skeletal, and to demonstrate the effects of earthquake on them, which is of importance in many developing countries. Its pieces can easily be produced in the model making workshops of architecture schools for such purposes.

•    Pen-Toyz can also give insight about modularity and prefabrication in building

•    Its pieces can be assembled and dissembled again and again, but the figures made out of them can be kept easily as they are or can be glued together to obtain permanent models

•    Finished figures can be used for displaying if its pieces are assembled and arranged for that purpose

•    It is age, gender, race and religious belief independent, it can also be used by hobbyists

•    It fulfills the educational requirements devised by Froebel

•    It is simple but challenging, it is innovative and creative, it can be fun to play

•    It allows variability and flexibility, allows development and extensions

•    It can be produced out of existing (or even waste) materials without creating environmental problems, its pieces can also be handcrafted easily

•    It can be used in computer modeling as the renderings and the animation show

Computers are the ultimate toys offering great diversity for children too. There are programs which simulate building blocks or existing toys. Many aspects, even gravity can be simulated with them. 3-dimensional modeling is also possible. Some of these programs allow on-line playing too. One of them is called “OBBL Architecture Blocks” and has been developed by Maurici Carbó Jordi, who is also an architect.  If something like this can be applied to “Pen-Toyz” it can be seen as another kind of extension of the toy’s possibilities.

•    Its manufacture can be relatively cheap; it can be produced easily with conventional methods and it can be used as a toy in developing countries.

As psychologists point out, children’s toys need not be complicated or expensive. In fact they would play with anything, including household items. They also advise more or less undefined toys that allow space for fantasy rather than figuratively detailed ones that provide only limited play possibilities. “Pen-Toyz” seems to be fulfilling such conditions too.

Conclusive remarks

Architectural toys are educational, interesting and fun to play with. They can offer challenges for designers as well as researchers. There are collectors of these toys and it is also possible to find collections of them in some museums and toy museums. Some of them even offer such sets in their shops. Jackie Britton of the Science Museum in London writes,

“..I’m not entirely sure why, but there is something extremely appealing and satisfying about tiny scale models of everyday things. Many adults build and furnish doll’s houses or collect scale models of trains, and part of the appeal, I think, is the miniaturization itself.. ..As a building addict I am naturally drawn to model buildings, from architects’ models, through doll’s houses to tiny souvenir houses little larger than a matchbox..”

Because of this parks that exhibit miniature buildings, either in form of realistic models up to scale or made with the pieces of such toys, are very popular. The best known example is the so-called “Madurodam” in Den Haag, Holland, which was designed by the architect S. J. Bouma (1899-1959) and opened in 1952.  It contains famous buildings of this country up to the scale 1 / 25. The earliest of such parks was “Beconscot” (spelled also as Bekonscot), established by Roland Callingham in Beaconsfield, near London and opened to public in 1929.

The only example in Turkey is the park called “Miniaturk” in İstanbul. It is one of the largest with an area of 60 000 square meters.  It contains up-to-scale models of historical and modern buildings from Turkey and elsewhere. A well-known manufacturer of such toys, “LEGO”, has established entertainment parks in different countries under the name of “Legoland”, where models of miniature buildings constructed with the pieces of this toy are on exhibition.

It is not easy to find new design ideas for architectural toys and they may not always receive the expected appeal. Every child is different, has different interests and abilities. It is difficult to say that a toy will appeal every one of them. Apparently toy manufacturers are also aware of this because they continuously bring something new on the market to attract the attention of children as well as grownups.

Thinking and discussing about architectural toys can also be very instructive in the education of architecture and building design. Above mentioned collector, Geoff Lilleker, says:

“..These are an exciting part of our Architectural History which has mostly gone by the way side – even though some sets may actually have preceded “real life” architectural advances in design, such as the contemporary hanging wall and modern skyscraper..”

On one of her web pages Jackie Britton mentions about an architectural toy that makes use of curtain walls, the toy also takes its name from this construction method.

Of course we cannot expect everybody to get excited about architectural toys and play aspects of design. But our workshop proved that it can be very refreshing to make such an exercise in this form from time to time. As can be seen from the above mentioned design idea, many of our students found the thought of designing an architectural toy very challenging. The limited time was a hindrance for the reasonable development of many ideas that were brought forward. Although they had very little knowledge and experience in these matters students showed a surprisingly agile ability in designing something like that.

Coming from Near and Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, and Palestine they understood the educational value of these toys in their own countries. They liked the ideas of their fellow students, giving comments, engaging in discussions. Students understood the value of such toys not only for children but also for their own education. Almost unanimously they were expressing the thought that they should have been confronted with such toys right at the beginning of their studies and asking why this has not been done.

As academicians it is our primary duty to be concerned with the problems of higher levels of architectural education at the universities and academies. But the results of this workshop, which actually started only as an exercise in creativity, have shown that it can and should go beyond that. If we believe that education is a whole, we must think about the other, especially lower levels of it too, develop ideas and make proposals for them or give constructive advice basing on our experience and support the efforts in that direction.

This seems to be of more importance at the educational institutions in developing countries. It is not enough trying to pump specialized knowledge about architecture and design into the brains of students who have rarely played with such toys and wait for better responses from them. Whenever there is a mention of play aspects in architectural education the author cannot help remembering the words of a friend and colleague of him, Gökalp Baykal, also a Turkish architect, musician and author. Once he said that he did not have any difficulties at the beginning of his architectural studies like many of his fellow students, simply because he was occupying himself with the construction of model airplanes when he was younger and he was familiar with plans, sections and elevations. He was not only able to read and understand them but he was also able to visualize them in the 3rd dimension very easily.

The above mentioned exercise has shown that young students coming from developing countries can deliver very good design proposals in accordance with the conditions of their countries, although this was not specified at the beginning. In fact there were some complex proposals that would require higher technologies or would be too expensive to produce or too complicated to play with. In spite of the fact that they were shown two highly sophisticated construction toys at the beginning of the exercise, their design ideas were generally quite modest, many of the proposals could be realized with more or less simple methods.

The exercise has also made clear that the proposals were not only fulfilling design requirements but educational requirements too. Many students did not know the name of Froebel or heard about his pedagogical ideas, but most of their proposals would be satisfying his principles. Almost all of the students shared the enthusiasm of their tutors and their proposals showed that they were able to steer their design abilities towards different directions if it was asked for. The exercise opened the way for new thoughts and speculations. All in all, it was a pleasant experience for all participants and had a result worth reporting.

Additional note: In order to give an idea about Pen-Toyz I am adding the original animated presentation of it to my web pages with the permission of its designer, who also happens to be my daughter.

Originally written for publication, which was not realized, in Gazimağusa 20.11.2006
Revised for my web page, in Ankara January 2009

Some sources about architectural toys:

Geoff Lilleker is a collector of architectural construction toys. His web-pages contain detailed information about them. He has incorporated the unfinished site of the late Arlan Coffman (1943-1998), another collector of architectural toys, into his own.

George Wetzel is also a collector. His web-pages contain one of the longest articles about architectural toys.

Jackie Britton is executive assistant to the head of museum at the Science Museum in London. Her web-pages contain a detailed classification of architectural toys.

Robert Craycroft is an American professor of architecture. He has an inventory of his collection of architectural toys on his web-page.

Joachim Kleindienst is a German collector. In his “..virtual exhibition..” he mentions about many architectural toys that is not known elsewhere.

George Hardy gives detailed information about Anchor building blocks.

Joseph W. Lauher’s web-pages are devoted more to LEGO, but also contain information about other kinds of architectural toys.

These web-pages intend to give information about “Girder and Panel” construction sets, which were quite popular in the U.S.A. from the late 1950′s to mid 1960′s. They contain information about the historical development of these toys and many pictures.

John Thorpe is an English collector and dealer of spare parts for construction toys. His web-pages contain information about “Meccano”, “Bayko” and “Trix” engineering construction sets.  and

“..An architect, collector, curator and wood carver, Norman Brosterman became interested in Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten system while compiling one of the world’s finest collections of children’s building blocks and construction toys.. ..Brosterman’s collection of building blocks became the basis for the “Potential Architecture” exhibition at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal..”

Norman Brosterman has also a book under the title Inventing Kindergarten (published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1997), in which he gives information about Froebel’s life and work. The book contains also photographs from Brosterman’s collection of construction toys.



Figure 1: A modern set of Froebel building blocks

Figure 2: Exercises submitted to the “Advanced Computer Aided Design” courses of the Digital Design Laboratory in the School of Architecture at the University of Columbia that use the elements of Froebel building blocks

Figure 3: Some figures that can be built by Anchor building blocks

Figure 4: “Dandana – the Fairy Palace”, building blocks out of glass designed by Bruno Taut ca. 1919

Figure 5: The so-called “Fibonacci Tunnel” in Kyoto (Japan) and the “Sunflower Tower” in Miami, Florida (U.S.A.) by Akio Hizume

Figure 6: A sculpture by Santiago Calatrava



Figure 7: Stages of a randomly created construction with “PenToyz”
(Computer rendering by Pınar Alsaç)

Figure : Box of Lincoln logs

Figure : Some historical buildings built by HABA Master Builder 25 construction set

Figure : Screen-print of the computer game OBBL Architecture Blocks developed and shared by Maurici Carbó Jordi, adapted for Math Cats by Wendy Petti

Figure : Instruction sheet to the Curtain Wall Builder

Figure : Russian construction set Konstruktor – Teremok

Figure : Playing with the Vario building set

Figure : A ready-to-assemble set of rods and sticks for a wine bottle holder by the Turkish furniture company of Massivehome and an assembled set of the same as offered by the retailer company “Tekzen”
(Photograph by the author and

Figure : Paper models of “PenToyz”
(Photograph by the author)

Wine holder

Its aim is to show that new and inexpensive toys can be developed and marketed in the developing countries too, that may be of help in increasing the skills of children or at least can contribute to the understanding of building and construction.

toy20.jpg toy21.jpg


A set of “PenToyz”
(Computer rendering by Pınar Alsaç)

Figure : Paper model of “PenToyz”
(Photograph by the author)

“PenToyz” sheets at the exhibition of the workshop
(Photograph by the author)

Log house constructed in Cyprus by the Honka company.




“..Frank Lloyd Wright credited Froeble Blocks for influencing him to go into architecture. His mother had purchased them for him at Milton Bradley’s..”

Norman Brosterman “Child’s play – influence of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten system, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for American Architecture, Columbia University, New York, New York”. Art in America. April 1997. 21 Aug. 2006.

The researcher Terry W. Knight mentions in a study the similarity between the possible variations that can be created with Froebel blocks and “prairie houses” of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Terry W. Knight, Transformations in Design, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1994) and 
Short cite: Knight, Tranformations in Design, Cambridge University Press

“..Many adults spent a lot of time with those colorful stone blocks, and some remained addicted all their lives, like the famous architect Walter Gropius..”


“..As an alternative to the rather unstable wooden blocks, the brothers develop a method of manufacturing precisely shaped building blocks using quartz sand, powdered chalk and linseed oil varnish..”

“..The glass blocks above are from a set called “Dandana-the Fairy Palace,” made in 1919. Bruno Taut, now generally considered by architectural historians to be the father of Modern Architecture, was the designer. This set was most recently featured at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of their “Expressionistic Utopias” exhibition..”


Santiago Calatrava, “The Synthetic Power of Games and Metaphor”, in Bridging the Gap, Daborah Gans, editor, New York, 1991
Short cite: Calatrava, “The Synthetic Power of Games and Metaphor”

Tamar Zinguer is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Architecture at Princeton University. She “ currently investigating the ways in which construction toys have related to architecture and to the built environment. Drawing on an investigation of the toys and their inventors, her work seeks to illuminate how architectural playthings have reflected stylistic inclinations, incorporated technological changes in their systems of construction, and how the toys were influenced by theories of play and education..” (!people!faculty.php?start=0!1798)

“..I played with architectural toys as a child, but then, who didn’t? Wooden blocks, tiny buildings, and construction games are so common that it is easy to forget that they, too, have a history. I was reminded of that history by the current exhibition of architectural toys at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal..”
Witold Rybczynski, “The Pleasures of Playing Architect”, in The New York Times, February 17, 1991 and

This situation seems to be changing in slightly more advanced countries. A prominent Turkish architectural periodical, Yapı, has published a news report in one of its recent issues that was giving information about a design competition for toys. Apparently it was open to architecture as well as industrial design students, but none of the prize-winning designs was delivered by architecture students and the proposals were not about architectural toys.
Burçin Yılmaz, “İçindeki Çocuğu Uyandır” (Awaken the child in you), in Yapı, Temmuz/July 2006, sayı/issue 296, p 90 and

Beril Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Tasarıma Esnek Bir Yaklaşım” (A flexible approach to design), in EgeMimarlık, issue 47, 2003
Short cite: Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Tasarıma Esnek Bir Yaklaşım” (A flexible approach to design)

Beril Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Tasarıma Esnek Bir Yaklaşım” (A flexible approach to design), in Mimarlık Eğitiminde Tasarım Stüdyolarına Farklı Yaklaşımlar (Different Approaches to Design Studios in the Education of Architecture), derleyenler/editors Hikmet Gökmen – Dürrin Süer, İzmir (Turkey), 2003
Short cite: Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Tasarıma Esnek Bir Yaklaşım” (A flexible approach to design)

Beril Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Happy Students Produce Better Work – An Experimental Approach to Design Tutoring”, in Monitoring Architectural Design Education in European Schools of Architecture, editor Constantin Spiridonidis, Thessaloniki (Greece), 2004
Short cite: Özmen Mayer / The Author, “Happy Students Produce Better Work – An Experimental Approach to Design Tutoring”

Guita Farivarsadri / The Author, “Let’s Play Design”, in Open House International, Vol. 31, No. 3, September 2006, pp 43-50 (Third prize winning essay)
Short cite: Farivarsadri / Alsaç, “Let’s Play Design”

The Author, Theoretical Observations on Architecture, Gazimağusa, 1997 (Supplementary lecture notes for ARCH 221 and 222 (Evolution of the built environment I and II))
Short cite: Alsaç, Theoretical Observations on Architecture, EMU Printing House


“..The original wooden construction set Teremok from Siberia. Developed by Russian scientists, hand crafted. According the traditional architecture of the Russian izba..”

“..We started with five types of kits, now the WALACHIA® is producing twenty three types of kits. In the 1999 WALACHIA® came on the market with five “ wall kit-houses “..”


The wine bottle holder of the company Massivehome (Turkey) consists of 12 square prismatic rods (with the measurements of 3x3x25 cm) and 18 cylindrical sticks (with the measurements of 10 cm and a diameter of 1.4 cm). Such a set has a selling price of $ 14 (US) as offered by the retailer Tekzen.

There are at least two toys, HABA Master Builder 25 Architectural Blocks and Think Tank Toys that have building block sets, which enable the construction of stylistically accurate models. Think Tank Toys offers even a “Middle Eastern Wooden Block Set” with the explanation “..The distinctive “pointed domes” of the buildings in the Middle Eastern sets give each building the special look of the 7th through 16th centuries in Persia, Syria and Egypt..”
( and (



“..The structural engineering lesson, entitled Building stability, covers basic structures such as columns and beams, bridges, buildings, space frames, and towers..”





The following is an interesting article about this park:
İpek Türeli, “Modelling Citizenship in Turkey’s Miniature Park”, in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. XVII, number II, 2006, pp 55-69
Also at: (

First “Legoland” was established in Billund, Denmark in 1968. There are also similar parks in California, USA: Günzburg, Germany; Windsor, England.


“..The..  ..featured set is Curtain Wall Builder, a 1950′s American toy which builds modular flat roofed office buildings and the like..” (

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