The Real Lego Church

The brickmaker has a history with houses of worship. /

In the landscape of Lego City, you can buy such oddities as an Arctic Icebreaker, a Camper Van, and a Swamp Police Station. But among all the buildings on fire, under construction, targeted by crooks, or abutting the city’s remarkably robust public transport system, you won’t find a single church.

Even the relatively new Lego Architecture series hasn’t thrown a cathedral in alongside its Brandenburg Gate, Space Needle, Fallingwater, and other landmarks.

That’s not really surprising. Churches don’t make great toys, the occasional devotional effort or wedding-themed Playmobil set notwithstanding.

Actually, Lego’s branding standards clearly bar the use of the bricks for any “religious references including symbols, buildings, or people.”

It wasn’t always the case. From 1957 to 1962, the company produced a 149-piece church set as part of its Town Plan series. While it looks a bit like a Spanish mission church, its design was likely based on a church about 12 miles from the Lego headquarters. The model sports a prominent “founding date”—1762—that remains a mystery to Lego enthusiasts.

Gary Istok, a Lego historian and collector, noted that in the years following the introduction of the Town Plan church, the Lego Group headquarters housed its own Lego version of the Cologne Cathedral in its Danish offices. Other semi-official (but not purchasable) special cathedral models followed: an Ulm Cathedral in Detroit, a York Minster in Wrexham. As Lego exhibitions passed from model shops to theme parks, cathedrals have been part of the miniature city recreations. Legoland Deutschland not only sports a much larger Ulm Cathedral than the one built in the ’50s, but also includes Berlin Cathedral and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Legoland Windsor has St. Paul’s Cathedral. Legoland Florida’s Washington, D.C., display includes St. John’s Church, and even Legoland Malaysia has a model of the Church of the Immaculate Conception among its mosques.

Legoland Discovery Centers often depict at least one significant local church in the miniland of their host city, whether it’s Manchester Cathedral, Boston’s Trinity Church and Old North Church, or Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral.

There are, of course, countless fan-made churches and cathedrals—some architecturally impressive, some notable for their scale. Few are as impressive as the Abston Church of Christ, built by Amy Hughes between 2000 and 2002. Sadly, Hughes’s website documenting the seven-foot creation is no longer live, but the model lives on in photos as one of the most-frequently reposted large scale Lego fan creations online. The contemporary megachurch sat 1,372 minifigures, had a baptistery, bathrooms, and coat rooms, and was posted with a dedication sermon about the importance of church buildings.

In 2011, the world got as close as it would to a real church made of Lego bricks. As part of the Grenswerk Festival in Enschede, the Netherlands, architect Michiel de Wit and visual artist Filip Jonker created Abondantus Gigantus, a 65-foot-tall church made of Legioblocks—heavy but stackable concrete blocks that look an awful lot like the plastic bricks they sound like. In most cases they’re gray and used for retaining walls and quickly-built storage bays. But de Wit and Jonker painted them bright primary colors to, as they said, “call up feelings of remembrance, sentiment, and creativity. The size of the church, on the other hand, inspires the spectator with awe.”

“A church is a community building where people come together,” the designers explained. “It also serves an important role in organizing the public space: a church is always in the center of an area. In the same manner in which lighthouses guard a border and bridges connect people, a church centers an area. . . . The [Abondantus Gigantus] church appeals to sentiments for a renewed sense of community.”

It apparently didn’t host any church services. Just concerts and other performances.

See more images here.

The one building that probably has the world’s best claim to being a “Lego Church” has probably never called itself that. It’s in the small town of Billund, Denmark, birthplace of Lego itself. It’s not the Ribe Cathedral replica or the Norwegian stave church at Legoland Billund, but sits outside the park. It’s made of bricks, yes. But the normal fired clay kind, not plastic. People actually worship there on Sundays. It looks like a lot of other churches built around 1973 (which is to say it’s not an architectural marvel). What sets it apart is its patrons: the Billund Church was built by the Kirk Christiansen family, who built the Lego empire.

Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter who launched the toy business in the midst of the Great Depression, was not simply a cultural Christian. He and his family (especially his wife) were active in the Indre Mission, the renewalist movement within the Danish National Church. He led morning prayer sessions at the factory. And he spoke of turning to God in the midst of personal and financial troubles, which included his factory and home burning down and becoming a widower with four young sons to take care of.

“I am convinced that Father’s faith in God, which was evident in everything he did, helped carry him through his grief and the difficulties that followed,” Gotfred Christiansen told an interviewer in the 1980s. “His faith made him [an] active man. It gave him the courage and solace that enabled him to take on new responsibilities—and the strength to see a job through despite hardship.”

In the 1950s, as Lego was making the shift from wooden toys to plastic interlocking bricks, it also produced and widely distributed glow-in-the-dark crosses stamped with the Lego logo. These crosses now fetch about $80 on eBay, a marker of a time when both plastic cities and company towns were incomplete without a house of worship in the center, not just organizing public space but arranging it to point to the heavens.

Ted Olsen is co-editor of The Behemoth.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 22 / May 14, 2015
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    Issue 22: Martin Luther, pensive proteins, Lego churches, and Ascension

  2. No Iota in Vain: Martin Luther’s ‘Great and Worthy Undertaking’

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  3. Inside the Protein that Ponders

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  4. Ascension Day

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  5. Wonder on the Web

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