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Royal Institute of British Architects Day of Play 2015

Report by Chris Warrell

I received an e-mail out of the blue in mid-July with the subject line as "Meccano at the RIBA — urgent help needed!" The Royal Institute of British Architects had planned to have a family-friendly "Day of Play" — a day-long celebration of all things play at the RIBA headquarters at 66 Portland Place. It was inspired by The Brutalist Playground installation, reflecting the Brutalist designs of post-war architecture. The day would have Lego, Minecraft (a computer game), game design workshop, design your own high-rise home, colouring-in corner, plasticine city, tours of the building, and Meccano.

They had been sent hundreds of small Meccano kits and didn't really know what to do with them, so went to us for some help. I agreed that we could turn up and run the Meccano area. In the meantime, prompted by Ralph Laughton, some larger Meccano sets had turned up from Spin Master.

An early building session with Brian
An early building session with Brian

RIBA's website built up our contribution like this:

The Great Meccano Challenge. Team work makes the dream work! Experts from SELMEC — The South East London Meccano Club — will be on hand to impart their Meccano knowledge and to show you how to create some amazing architectural constructions. We'll also be giving out free mini Meccano kits for you to take home.

The Lego room
The Lego room

Brian Leach, Tim Surtell and I would be able to do the whole day, with Peter Clay free from mid-afternoon. The three of us arrived at 66 Portland Place and were told the activity was on the first floor, where we found a large hall with nearly 20 circular tables all ready — unfortunately none of it was for us, but for the Lego building! Our room was on the second floor; a far more modest one, above the main entrance, with just two 6' long tables covered in black cloth.

Another table was requested for the few models that we'd brought, along with Tim's video display and SELMEC publicity. In the room were several boxes containing new Meccano sets: the Eiffel Tower/Brooklyn Bridge; Tower Bridge and Empire State Building/Arc de Triomphe. A number of them were split open to give us a good stock of parts.

The Meccano room
The Meccano room

The initial idea was that one table would be for constructing any building, using the 5½" x 2½" flanged plate as a base; the other one would gradually build the Empire State Building throughout the day with each child constructing a section of it.

The start to the day was a little slow so we made a start of the skyscraper ourselves. We hadn't got very far before the first visitors started to trickle in, so we abandoned our building to give them some help. No more than a couple of children started on the Empire State Building, so we gave that up as a bad idea and had both tables for general building. We found pretty quickly that more tables were required, so another two, plus chairs, were requested to give us one for displaying the emerging city, and one for the building session. Even that wasn't quite enough because, during the busiest part of the day at around one o’clock, there were two families working on the floor!

Some of the buildings being created were quite inventive, some were very two dimensional, others very tall. It didn't matter, and most children, and one or two adults, seemed to have fun building anything they liked with an almost limitless supply of Meccano!

One of the budding architects shows off her clever scissor lift mechanism
One of the budding architects shows off her clever scissor lift mechanism

Over 700 people turned up for the main event, with us giving away around 100 helicopters to the children, so we probably had between 150 and 200 people, including parents, in the room over the seven hours. Laura Southall (Head of Learning at RIBA) and her team were very pleased with the way the day went. She hopes to be able to run something similar next year to which we'll be invited.

RIBA City — The odd collection of buildings built (mainly) by children at RIBA Day of Play
RIBA City — The odd collection of buildings built (mainly) by children at RIBA Day of Play

» This article appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of SELMEC News.

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