Michael Lin liked playing with Legos as a kid. In fact, he couldn’t get enough of the strangely compelling little plastic building blocks. Literally.
“My family wasn’t wealthy, so I never had as many as I wanted,” Lin recalls. “But I was fascinated with them, with their possibilities.”
He wasn’t—or isn’t—alone, of course. The toys have inspired a chain of amusement parks around the globe, and a popular movie now playing in theaters, the plot of which focuses on an ordinary Lego construction worker who is recruited to help stop an evil tyrant from “gluing the Lego universe into eternal stasis.” Perhaps even more surprisingly,Lego creations are now a distinctive art niche, sometimes resulting in large public exhibitions: the giant hummingbird in Rieman Gardens at Iowa State University, for example, or the group of humanoid “treehuggers” installed at Clement Clarke Moore Park in New York City to commemorate this year’s Earth Week.
But when Lin recently “re-engaged” with Legos, as he puts it, he planned nothing so grandiose. He merely wanted to immortalize the most iconic of Berkeley’s icons—the Sather Tower campanile—in a Lego kit.
“A couple of months ago I started fooling around with Legos and I made a couple of mock-ups of the Campanile,” he recalls. “I knew that Lego has a suggestion site—if you submit a proposal and it gets 10,000 votes, they’ll consider making a kit. I thought it would be very cool if they included the Berkeley Campanile in their architecture series.” It includes things like the Empire State Building and the Seattle Space Needle, but there’s nothing representative of a university campus.
“That may not seem like a lot, but it’s actually a pretty good showing to date,” Lin says. “You can’t just log on and vote yes or no. You have to go through a lot of clicks, filling out some relatively long forms about how many kits you might buy, and so forth.”
In other words, Lego is using the Ideas site as an opportunity for some painless, cheap, and potentially remunerative data mining. But Lin is good with that. Although he majored in architecture at the College of Environmental Design, he works as a financial advisor in San Ramon. There is an elegance, a felicitous melding of materials and concept, implicit in a Lego campanile, but there is also the stark fact that everybody has to get paid.
“For that matter, I undertook some market research on my own,” says Lin. “You want to hit an affordable price point. So when I made my prototypes, I kept that in mind. I ended up with a 10-inch model, consisting of 240 pieces. That puts it right in the range of most of the other sets in the company’s architecture series.”
Lin acknowledges that a Lego Cal campanile is unlikely to become the firm’s top-selling product.
“It’s not a Batman or Spiderman kit,” he says. “But I think it will be a steady seller. People who go to Berkeley are proud of their association with the school. And nothing says ‘Berkeley’ more than the Campanile.”