A review of ‘Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition’ at the National Building
Currently on exhibit, and running through September 5th, at the National Building Museum is ‘Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition’. The exhibition contains fifteen skyscrapers and other architectural works modeled in same plastic Lego blocks loved by millions of children for generations. Architect Adam Reed Tucker who is in a partnership with LEGO Systems, Inc. created the models. Most took hundreds of hours and the largest nearly half a million Lego blocks. The models are immaculately designed and impressive for being made out of just the standard plastic Lego pieces. That being said it is hard to see how this exhibition could be in any museum that takes the word “museum” seriously. It is not art, nor is it educational on anything but a very rudimentary way. It is clear right off that the only real goal is providing entertainment to the masses in order to make money for the museum, for with LEGO Systems, Inc., and Tucker.
The exhibit is in one room on the second flood of the Building Museum. The room contains the more than a dozen models, a Lego play area provided by LEGO Systems, Inc., and a shop selling absurdly overpriced( and overly simple) Lego sets allowing visitors to make some the same buildings in the exhibit, sometimes with less than a hundred pieces. These Lego sets were made in partnership with Adam Reed Tucker making the real goal of the exhibit obvious on its face.
The first model that the viewer encounters when entering the exhibit is the no longer existing World Trade Center. I could perhaps overlook this as being merely opportunistic if the introductory wall text to the exhibition didn’t state that Tucker was “motivated by the tragic events of September 11, 2001…to express his reverence for the form of the skyscraper and deepen his understanding and appreciation of architecture, engineering, and construction.” It could just be my cynicism but to me this comes off as a little disingenuous. As one continues through the exhibition each model is accompanied by a sign, which has the buildings name, location, height and date, as well as occasionally a couple of sentences pointing out particular building highlights. On the left side of the sign is the models height, number of Lego pieces used, as well as the models design and build time. Nothing substantially educational is offered.
In addition to famous landmarks the exhibition contains skyscrapers that are under construction or only exist as plans. Chicago has many more buildings represented then any other city. The two 112-story apartment buildings known as Marina City is represented as 4-foot models, the smaller, recently competed Trump Tower Chicago is represented as an 8-foot model. The inconsistent scale gives the viewer no way to see the buildings in relation to each other besides the printed size on the sign. The famous Sears Tower is also reimagined in Legos here. Two other ambitious and architecturally significant Chicago buildings are represented here that may never be actually built due to changing economic realities. The first is 7 South Dearborn . The now canceled project would have been 1550 feet, 2000 feet if you include the broadcast tower. While not the largest model in the exhibit, the bold Chicago Spire, which is listed as a project on hold, seems to be the highlight of the show. This building, which rises in a dramatic corkscrew fashion, would be an incredible 150 stories if ever built. The accompanying text almost mocks intelligent inquiry (which should be the goal of a museum exhibition such as this) with its brevity. It states it total “Look at the unique curves of the building. The curved design adds strength to the structure and minimizes wind forces”
The largest building, as well as the largest model, is Dubai’s unprecedented Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest man mad structure ever. It is 162 stories and 2,684 feet tall with its spire. The model is by far the largest in the exhibit at seventeen and a half feet. It uses 450,300 Lego pieces and took over 600 hours including the design and build time. Although this is impressive it does nothing to indicate the sheer elegance and absurd grandeur of the actual building.
Rounding off the exhibit stepping away from the skyscrapers are a few classic American landmarks. These are also the weakest points of the exhibit. The St. Lois Arch should have been in the exhibit but was not on view due to damage. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater is represented with a strange abstract reimagining of its landscape. This destroys Wright’s masterful marrying of the building with its surroundings in an embarrassingly awkward way. Its almost an insult when you finish the exhibit and are presented an opportunity to spend a hundred dollars for a small and even chunkier representation of it also designed by Tucker in collaboration with LEGO Systems, Inc.
Lego’s have been a part of American childhood for generations. In their simple form they provide millions of children endless ways to build their creativity in free imaginative play. Lego’s were my favorite and most often used toy in my childhood, but they were just a variety of anonymous blocks that I could use to stretch my imagination and creativity. Today they are more often found sets to construct a specific form (that was all that was offered in the exhibition store) easy to construct and requiring no imagination.
So after leaving the museums exhibit what are we left with, what can be learned from it. Little can be learned by what the exhibit is offering it is largely just entertainment. What I found myself thinking about more was the role and responsibility of a museum and the relationship between its educational goals verses its goals as a business. The National Building Museum states on its webpage that it was created by an act of congress in 1980 and that it “has become one of the world’s most prominent and vital venues for informed, reasoned debate about the built environment and its impact on people’s lives.” If that was truly the goal of this exhibition I can only call it a failure, if on the other hand the goal was profit the fact that it was sold out for several hours when I came to attend would indicate it is a smashing success.