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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.

Tucker says he began modeling Lego sculptures on a large scale after Sept. 11, 2001, the events of which inspired him to rethink his life and ambition. He had been doing residential design for a developer working in the suburbs of Chicago. Financial difficulties and a recent breakup left him living at home with his parents. So, naturally, he invested $150,000 in some Legos and embarked on a new career.

"I'm kind of an entrepreneur," says Tucker, who adds, "I'd put my Legos away when I was about 14." But picking them up again gave him new direction.

There's a wonderful mix of pathos and reinvention in that story. The unfulfilled architect finds a way to build big and release the childish energy that perhaps inspired him to be an architect in the first place. Legos unleash a megalomania in all of us, a master-builder complex that allows children (and adults) to connect with the architect's Promethean fantasies.

The best thing about Tucker's work is its direct confrontation with the Achilles' heel of current Lego thinking. He works almost exclusively with the most basic pieces. He has "no use," he says, for the specialized Lego sets, the spaceship and car parts that are fundamental to Lego's misguided effort to create fully realized models ready for assembly. In a Lego store today, one finds ridiculously expensive "Star Wars" and "Toy Story" models that require no more imagination to build than it takes to assemble Ikea furniture.

Lego, like certain religions, political ideologies and artistic movements, has slowly fallen away from the powerful purity of its original vision, replacing abstraction with ornament, introducing narratives and movie cross-marketing to appeal to kids who it assumes lack imagination, and softening and cheapening its product in an effort at mass appeal in a world of video games.

Tucker's skyscrapers, on the other hand, reveal the still-potent power of the simplest Lego elements. Much of his work is accomplished with the classic four- and six-pegged bricks, with the occasional add-on -- his model of the World Trade Center uses train rails to create the long vertical lines of the tower. A simple hinge piece allows him to create astonishingly versatile curved elements. Those hinges are essential to what may be the highlight of the exhibition: the corkscrew curves of Santiago Calatrava's Chicago Spire, an elegant, 2,000-foot-high Chicago skyscraper that faltered when the economy tanked and never got further than a giant hole in the ground.

There are limits to what Tucker can build. His model of Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which uses the hinge element to create the curve, doesn't get the arc of the monument quite right. His model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater uses square blocks to create an abstract version of the landscape on which the famous house sits, which misses the lovely interplay of the house's horizontal lines with the soft topography of the Pennsylvania countryside.

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There are also limits to the claims made for these models. During a walk-through of the exhibition, Tucker stressed their importance as educational tools, emphasizing the care he has taken to replicate internal structure in the models. But no matter how authentically and cleverly Legos can be used to imitate a building, Lego skyscrapers behave differently than real skyscrapers. Lego walls are extraordinarily rigid, whereas steel-framed skyscrapers are relatively light and elastic. The cross-bracing on Tucker's model of the John Hancock Center (in Chicago) doesn't seem to provide any real structural addition to the building. Tucker's skyscrapers are also built indoors, where wind is nonexistent and deep foundations and damping mechanisms unnecessary.

These concerns will be of minimal interest to the vast majority of visitors. But they illustrate an important distinction. Tucker is not building miniature versions of the real world, but rather, static models or imitations of it. It always took a certain suppleness of mind, as a child, to overlook this fact, that Lego buildings were hollow, devoid of people and life, and could be moved around on the floor like toys. It's sad that Lego seems worried about this, that it introduced those ridiculous Lego people in 1974 to people our empty, rigorous, perfect Lego world. Now it offers a computer program to help you build Lego structures virtually, see inside them, and with a click of a mouse buy all the pieces necessary to build them. This is good marketing, but it subverts the adamantine purity of the original toy.

The power of Tucker's work is in its fundamentalist loyalty to the old ideal of Legos -- silent, empty cities of hard-edged buildings, ruled over by the child's hand as if by hand of God. What he is doing appeals to the kid in us because it is basically kid's work, a direct appeal to the tyrannical Robert Moses that lurks in every 8-year-old boy. It is neither art nor terribly educational, but it will make you wish for exactly what Lego wishes for, too: that you had more bricks to play with.

Lego Architecture:

Towering Ambition

runs through Sept. 5 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Call 202-272-2448 or visit http://www.nbm.org.


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