If there is one thing that most Hackaday readers will know about Denmark, it is that it’s the home of the Lego brick. The toy first appeared at the end of the 1940s from the factory of Ole Kirk Christiansen‘s Lego company in Billund, central Denmark, and has remained inseparable from both the town and the country ever since.
When spending a week in Denmark for the BornHack hacker camp it made absolute sense to take a day out to drive up to Billund and visit the famous Legoland theme park. All those childhood dreams of seeing the fabled attraction would be satisfied, making the visit a day to remember.
The Danes at Bornhack however had other ideas. By all means go to Legoland they said, but also take in Lego House. As a Brit I’d never heard of it, so was quickly educated. It seems that while Legoland is a kid’s theme park, Lego House is a far more Lego-brick-focused experience, and in the view of the Danish hackers, much better.
In The Company Town, You’re Sitting On The Mother Lode
Billund is a small town surrounded by farmland, that would probably have remained a sleepy backwater were it not the Lego company town. The visitor attractions are dwarfed by the extent of the Lego factories and warehouses, and it boasts the country’s second largest international airport also owned by the company.
You are in no doubt as to Lego’s influence on the place as you drive in, the city limits are marked by car-sized Lego bricks at the side of the road. Lego House is right in the centre of town, a modernist structure designed to resemble a huge pile of Lego bricks. From across the square you can’t miss seeing more of those monster bricks. (I looked close — turns out they’re fibreglass, and I unaccountably want to own one.)
Once inside, the central atrium is dominated by a life-size tree over several stories, made of course from Lego. The furniture and fittings are all beautifully designed but retain a Lego theme, and you are never far from Lego bricks with most seating having a bin full of them for you to idly play with. This is the temple of the brick in every sense, and it is clear that a huge quantity of thought has gone into its creation. It is no budget visitor attraction but the premium statement of thanks by a multinational company to the fans of its product, and as a visitor you are welcome to immerse yourself in it rather than be a spectator.
The Brick Has A Fascinating History
The museum in the basement takes the visitor through the formation and early years of the Lego business from its origins in a family carpenter’s shop through its diversification into wooden toys and then its embrace of plastic moulding. First though, you walk above a series of worn-out Lego brick moulds unearthed from the foundations of a Lego factory, fascinatingly we learn that the company used to bury moulds in this way to avoid their falling into the hands of competitors. It’s interesting to see the moulds up-close, and there’s something slightly eerie about the exhibit.
We see the succession of the company’s wooden toys from the 1930s through to the ’50s, which incidentally provide a snapshot of the toy fashions of the day. There was a yo-yo craze in the 1930s, for instance, and later a craze for fake motorcycle engines to attach to bicycles. To eyes that associate the name with plastic bricks it’s very odd indeed to see the word “Lego” on a wooden truck or train. These were high-quality toys, and dare I say it there were a few I’d definitely snap up were I lucky enough to encounter one in a second-hand store.
The company diversified into plastic mouldings in the late 1940s, and there follows a series of exhibitions charting the decline of the wooden toy business and the rise of the plastic. It began with Lego bricks, evolving into the innumerable shapes we know today. The quantity of design work that went into ensuring that the bricks grip each other enough for the models to not fall apart, while remaining easy to dismantle is a fascinating story.
This is the point at which you’ll see the sets you had as a child, for example for me it was the blue railway tracks and large gear sets of the early 1970s that triggered the most nostalgia. It’s notable that the sets from that era were much more “Here are a load of parts, go and build anything you want” rather than “Here is a set to make this spaceship, go and build that”, and I at least am left with the feeling that our kids have lost some creative opportunity along the way.
Plenty Of Lego Activities For All Ages
The museum alone would make for a worthy destination, but this building offers so much more. Upstairs there are a series of zones, from an art gallery of pieces done in the medium of Lego bricks through interactive Lego challenges and games involving making real items in Lego and mating them to virtual worlds, to more traditional Lego activities. If you wish to build a Lego house and have it in a virtual cityscape you can do it here.
You can also see your Lego fish swimming in a virtual sea. My effort was a shark.
A Rare Chance To See The Bricks Being Made
Emerging from the riot of coloured plastic bricks back into the atrium, there is a final treat. The Danish mathematician Søren Eilers and a team computed the maximum number of combinations in which six eight-stud Lego bricks could be combined as 915,103,765, and the Lego company are setting out to have every one of them built. You can scan your RFID pass and receive your personalised combination, but the special treat is that on your way out you receive a pack of six red Lego bricks made by a working Lego production line there in front of you. We’re told it’s the same as the plant used in the Lego factories, but hugely slowed down to the rate at which visitors pass through the attraction.
There is a machine processing raw plastic pellets, feeding the hydraulic injection moulding machine that makes the bricks, and then a series of sorting machinery that extract six bricks and then a packager that bags them up in the exclusive Lego House packaging, before being weighed and dispensed. It’s interesting to note that the weighing process rejects a few bags of bricks, there must be quite a fine tolerance on a finished brick. It’s a rare opportunity to see close-up an industrial production line, and that it’s creating the iconic Lego bricks is a bonus.
There’s Another Attraction In Billund, Too
With bricks in hand, we left Lego House past the Lego shop in which almost anything Lego could be found. A festival of Lego bricks, but of course it’s not the only game in Billund. The Legoland theme park is on the outskirts of town, so on a second day we made the trip there. It’s not worthy of a Hackaday write-up as much as Lego House because we are not a theme park review site, but it’s worth a quick mention as there are a few points of technical interest there.
Most of the rides are Lego-themed versions of traditional park fare, but it’s worth taking the time to try the Ice Pilot ride in which you sit on the end of an industrial robot following a path you can program yourself. Then there are the extensive Lego model cities, which have plenty of automation to marvel at. Otherwise have the usual fun with monorails and trains and water rides, but don’t expect much accessible tech. And a word to the wise: by all means try the Lego brick fries in the burger joint, but order a portion between more than one person. Danes must have HUGE appetites.
So then, Lego House and Legoland. Both as Danish as a smørrebrød, and definitely something you should put on your itineraries should you find yourself in the country. How about making time for BornHack next year so you can follow in our footsteps?