For local landscape architect Aaron Williams, building with Legos has become more than just a hobby.
The white, plastic blocks — formed into mini models of Madison businesses and buildings, particularly those on Monroe Street — are a way for him to connect with other residents, become “completely absorbed in something” and gain a greater appreciation for the neighborhood that he loves.
A resident of the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood, Williams said he was sad to see the restaurants, coffee shops and stores he enjoyed along Monroe Street shutter at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the restaurants, Fairchild, had just opened, but it closed up due to COVID before Williams got a chance to go. He decided to build it with Legos instead.
“That’s what really started all this stuff. If you go back to the first post that I did, the series was called, ‘Can’t go so we build,’” Williams said. “It was about the places that we frequented, and that were the backdrop of sort of my daily existence, but now were shuttered or silenced.”
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Now roughly two years later, Williams has created almost 60 Lego miniatures of Madison buildings, the vast majority of them businesses along Monroe Street.
He begins by taking photos of all sides of the actual building out in the community. Then he develops a scale — usually one Lego brick for one door frame — and starts doing trial and error to replicate the building, but pint-sized. The process is something that he enjoys. It comes easily and is a way for him to get into a “zone” where he feels fully present in the moment.
“Being present, that’s the hardest thing to get into and reside in,” he said. “And that’s what Lego allows me to do.”
Once the build is done, Williams snaps some photos and posts it to his Instagram, aw_legoarchitecture, with a brief description of the business and what it brings to the Madison community. Williams said he wants to bring attention to places that have struggled because of the pandemic.
After posting, Williams would deconstruct the model and reuse the bricks for the next creation to save money on Legos and have “the past” help build the future.
As interest in his project has grown, however, Williams has started to keep some of the models. His work was featured during a gallery night at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the fall. He’s also sold some of the models, but hasn’t made a profit.
“If there’s a way to monetize it, I haven’t figured it out,” Williams said, noting that’s maybe part of why people are connecting with the buildings. He’s not trying to make money off them.
Williams said his main goal is to “enhance the experience of the everyday.” To Williams, that means taking something ordinary and looking at it in a different way. A way that “allows you to grow and see the world differently,” he said.
Williams, 42, is an assistant campus planner at UW-Madison and is also the founder of Aaron Williams Landscape Architecture. He lives a few blocks off Monroe Street with his wife and their 8-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. He grew up in Antigo, a farming town in northern Wisconsin, but has lived in Madison for the last 20 years.
Aside from being a landscape architect and building these Lego creations, what do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy outdoor activities and spending time with my family. Partaking in the typical Madison things. Going to sporting events. We’re big into basketball and golf, soccer, tennis, swimming. Maybe get back to travel at some point. Haven’t done much of that in the last two years.
Have you designed anything in the Madison area that people would know of?
A number of streetscapes (in) Cambridge, Grafton, Burlington, Middleton, Stoughton. Robinia Courtyard (829 E. Washington Ave.) is probably one of the more popular ones right now. I started that when I was with SAA Design Group. I’ve done work for Lucille up on the Square.
You started the Lego project as a way to connect to businesses that you couldn’t go to. Do you think that the message of this project has changed over time now that you can go to these businesses again? How has it evolved?
I know these businesses. I personally know them visually as a much richer experience. But now I know many of the owners or the inhabitants of these buildings (because of how they’ve interacted with the Lego project). When I go to these businesses, Madison becomes that much smaller. That’s what you want to hope for a place that you live, right? You want to be of the place. I’ve felt I’ve become more of the place.
Was there a reason why you picked white for the color?
In 2015, my wife had bought me the Lego architecture set, which is a set of 1,200 white and translucent pieces only. I got (it) out, and decided, “Let’s see if I can build Fairchild,” which was the first build I did.
Besides really the practicality reason … having that absence of color makes you more aware of everything around you. I’m less interested in reflecting what the buildings look like from a true color standpoint. I’m more (interested in) editing them down to their essential qualities. I’m kind of heightening them in a sense by creating them in a monochromatic color. And then allowing you to make an interpretation for yourself.
You said a bit ago that you didn’t really think of yourself as an artist. Do you feel like an artist now? It feels like that is what this project has become.
I suppose. I’m not trained in that sense. I don’t want to offend real artists. It’s not my livelihood by any means. But there’s definitely an artistic quality to it. Art’s in the eye of the beholder. Mine just happens to be little white bricks.
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