Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition
National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. (www.nbm.org)
In the 19th century, skyscrapers embodied the American dream. Looming monuments to the promise of the future, they were born and raised in the polyglot cities springing up across a vast rural landscape, where commerce was becoming king and frontiers were finally closing.
After Chicago burned in 1871, it was as if the skyscraper had acquired open range to evolve on. Architects—William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance building is considered the first modern skyscraper—and inventors—Elisha Otis’ elevator-brake design made ever-taller towers practical—translated dream into steel-ribbed concrete-and-brick reality. Banks and insurance companies and brokerages competed to erect imposing skyscrapers as home offices, as if to reassure clients that their abstract transactions had the solidity and majesty the buildings implied. Before the postwar Modernist movement reduced skyscrapers to hulking glass boxes, dynamic, highly decorated towers drew eyes heavenward with their soaring beauty.
Even as skyscrapers multiplied across the globe, they remained deeply American icons of aspiration, power, achievement and hope. No wonder al-Qaeda chose to hit the World Trade Center, America’s metaphorical economic heart.
In this marvelous exhibit for kids of all ages, the Twin Towers still stand proud at 7 feet high, among 14 other monuments, all built to scale completely of Legos. Cute, right? Sure, but not only. Adam Reed Tucker, an architect turned artist, created these models to meticulous detail. He tries to suggest the structural principles of his skyscrapers’ much larger cousins: core columns, load-bearing frames, cantilevered torque, curtain walls. In fact, he’s left some models partially open so you can glimpse the guts and see what makes them tick. In the original Lego spirit (and in sharp contrast to today’s prefab model kits), Tucker has creatively improvised from any and all available pieces: train rails, for instance, become the Twin Towers’ trademark facades.
And then there’s the fun. In the adjoining area, kids work out their own Lego dreams and set them into four urban blocks. (This is why tickets to the exhibit are timed and limited; get there early.) The handiwork ranges from ho-hum and plug-ugly to jaw-dropping and brilliant. Kinda like buildings all around us. The exhibit runs through September 2011.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.