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

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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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