Review: 'Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition' at the National Building Museum

Adam Reed Tucker's models of skyscrapers reveal the still-potent power of the simplest Lego elements.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 9:48 AM

Lego earned its reputation as one of the greatest toymakers of the 20th century brick by brick. The company's PR folks have the statistics right at hand: There are approximately 62 Lego bricks per person on Earth; the world's children "spend 5 billion hours a year playing with Lego bricks"; and "laid end to end, the number of Lego bricks sold in a year would reach more than five times round the world."

No surprise, then, that the National Building Museum's new Lego exhibition is already attracting crowds. Centered on the work of Lego master Adam Reed Tucker, a professional architect, the show features 15 of Tucker's Lego facsimiles of famous skyscrapers and other architectural icons.

In a sunny gallery on the second floor of the museum, compelling large-scale reproductions of the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower (the Chicago landmark now known as the Willis Tower) and the current highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, stand next to one another, as if relocated to form an ideal city of overachieving architecture. The Burj Khalifa model, which took 340 hours to build, is 17 1/2 feet high and incorporates 450,300 bricks.

"You're actually getting into crushing-strength weight on the bottom bricks," says Tucker, pointing to the lowest levels of his giant Dubai model.

Legos are compulsively attractive to anyone with an interest in architecture. The simple and seductive snap of their plastic coupling system gives professional solidity to the amateur's efforts to model the world. Introduced in their current form in 1958, they were ingeniously designed and are almost indestructible.

Although the company has introduced new products and is trying to construct compelling online and electronic ways to promote the old plastic brick, the most compelling thing about Lego is its unchanging simplicity. If you happen to have a box of pieces from the 1960s, they will snap tightly onto bricks manufactured yesterday.

The Lego brick was also the perfect toy for the age in which it was introduced, which helps explain why Tucker's models have a cultural power that ordinary architectural models might not. Legos arrived at two critical moments in architectural history. The international modern style had spread the rectilinear and functional lines of its austere aesthetic around the world. Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, in New York City, was finished in 1958, the same year the Lego brick began its colonization of the world's playrooms.

And suburbia was in full flower. Levittown, the Long Island prototype for mass-produced housing, was finished in 1951. A 1956 law, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, created the interstate highway system, which in turn created the ribbons of concrete connecting all those "ticky tacky" boxes that Pete Seeger sang about in a famous 1963 song.

Legos were perfect for both of these architectural forms. Any child could build high and strong reproductions of the towers that were transforming the slowly dying downtowns of America, and pump out dozens of identical ranchlike Lego houses.

Legos were also the quintessential capitalist toy, ideally suited to an era of rapid and seemingly infinite economic expansion. You could never have enough Legos, or as the company still puts it on its Web site, "The more Lego bricks you have, the more fertile your creativity can become . . . ." You may love dolls or stuffed animals, but at a certain point, a kind of inflation sets in, and you don't value any single one quite as much. But Legos were abstract little cogs in an ever-expanding, bigger-is-better world of play. When you were done building a house, you could build a city.

Tucker's giant Lego sculptures appeal in part because they reflect the voracious appetite of the Lego mind-set. His giant models are what we would build if we had enough Legos and enough time to regress to childhood.

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