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IMHO Thick as a brick

By Ron Scopelliti

Recently I walked by the LEGO store at Providence Place Mall and noticed a LEGO model of a Bugatti Chiron sports car. I was at once amazed and disappointed. On the one hand, it’s hard not to be impressed when you see any of the enormous, intricate builds the store features in its front window. On the other hand, the bricks failed to capture the curves of the real car.

Even worse than that, however, many of the bricks seemed to be made specifically for that model – and designed to perform just one function in just one place. To me the magic of LEGO bricks and similar products has always been the way that you can build so many different, unique projects from the same simple, standardized, universal shapes. The same way you can do so from real bricks.

I’m rather fond of bricks. I think some of it goes back to my days at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For those of you who haven’t been there, it was designed by Paul Rudolph, who was associated with the “brutalist” movement of architecture. The term comes from the French phrase “béton brut,” meaning “raw concrete.” Instead of covering concrete structures with shiny facades, brutalists celebrate the nature of the concrete itself by leaving it exposed, often applying unique textures to it.

But unlike my other brutalist alma mater, the CCRI Knight Campus, UMass Dartmouth wasn’t built by pouring concrete. Instead, Rudolph’s buildings were made of custom-cast concrete blocks, placed together like a giant set of LEGO bricks. Unlike the disappointing Bugatti’s bespoke bricks, however, UMass Dartmouth’s academic buildings are built from a limited number of different bricks. I think there were only six different shapes, if I remember correctly.

Bricks are great devices, not just for building, but for establishing analogs and metaphors and patterns of thought. Think of the great music associated with bricks. Would Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” work as well if it were “Another Picket in the Fence”? Would the Commodore’s “Brick House” be as funky if it were “Vinyl-Sided House”? I seriously doubt it.

I hear bricks are also handy for delivering messages through plate-glass windows, though that’s really not my style. I prefer the Smithfield Times method of using the mailbox. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a brick at anything. But I remember being tempted to throw one at the TV when Elvis Costello lost the “Best New Artist” Grammy to A Taste of Honey, whose contribution to the musical canon was a disco single called “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time I handled a brick. It may have been back when I used to change my own oil. There always seemed to be a leftover brick around that I could use as a wheel chock, even though I’d have no idea what it was left over from. These days I never find leftover bricks.

I feel like I grew up in a golden age of leftover bricks. Leftover bricks and scrap lumber. When I was a kid, there was never any shortage of material when we wanted to build forts in the woods. As much as I applaud the fact that people are so much more responsible with waste disposal, I miss the days when my friends and I would be walking to a favorite pine grove, and stumble upon a pile of illegally-dumped two-by-fours, shingles, and bricks, just begging to be built with.

I was never entirely sure what our forts were supposed to be protecting us from. Maybe they were just a product of our cold-war upbringing, spurred on by the fact that our elementary school had fallout shelter signs all over it. I think my friends and I always felt that some sort of invasion was imminent, but we were confident that we could hold off whatever was coming at us using waterlogged plywood, scraps of tarpaper, and a lever-action Daisy BB gun.

But anyway, our forts would inevitably include one or two stray bricks, either holding down a ripped tarp, or acting as a platform to set off caps by banging them with a rock.

These days, I’m more likely to find stray bricks in Minecraft than in real life. But maybe it’s time that I set my mind to a real bricklaying project. With all the unrest and uncertainty in the world, some manual labor and repetitive stacking might be just the thing to keep me from going completely psychotic. Maybe I’ll build a place in the cellar for my cask of Amontillado…