Architectural inspiration continues to push the world's best-loved toy to new levels, writes Philip Kennicott.
Lego earned its reputation as one of the greatest toymakers of the 20th century brick by brick. The company's PR flaks have the statistics at hand: there are about 62 Lego bricks for each 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 a new American exhibition featuring Lego facsimiles of 15 of the world's most famous skyscrapers and other architectural icons is attracting crowds.
Lego is compulsively attractive to anyone with an interest in architecture.
Lego is 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 new 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 made yesterday.
The Lego brick was also the perfect toy for the age in which it was introduced, which helps explain why the models by architect and Lego master Adam Reed Tucker at Washington's National Building Museum have a cultural power that ordinary architectural models might not. Lego 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 colonisation 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 Eisenhower, created the interstate highway system across the US, which in turn created the ribbons of concrete connecting all those "ticky tacky" boxes that Pete Seeger sang about in a famous 1963 song.
Lego was 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 and pump out dozens of identical ranch-like Lego houses.
Lego was also the quintessential capitalist toy, ideally suited to an era of rapid and seemingly infinite economic expansion. You could never have enough Lego or, as the company still puts it on its website: "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 Lego bricks 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.
The Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition exhibition includes impressive 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. The Burj Khalifa took 340 hours to build, is about 2.3 metres 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.
Tucker says he began modelling Lego sculptures on a large scale after September 11, 2001, the events of which inspired him to rethink his life and ambition. He had been doing residential design for a developer in Chicago. Financial difficulties and a recent breakup left him living at home with his parents. Naturally, he invested $US150,000 ($158,600) in some Lego and embarked on a new career. "I'm kind of an entrepreneur," Tucker says. "I'd put my Legos away when I was about 14." 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.
The best thing about Tucker's work is that he works almost exclusively with the most basic pieces. He has "no use", he says, for the specialised Lego sets, the spaceship and car parts that are fundamental to Lego's effort to create fully realised models ready for assembly.
Lego's Star Wars and Toy Story models require no more imagination to build than it takes to assemble modular furniture.
Lego 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 Centre uses train rails to create the long vertical lines of the tower. A simple hinge piece allows him to create astonishingly versatile curved elements.
There are limits to what Tucker can build, however. 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 but in doing so it 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. No matter how authentically and cleverly Lego can be used to imitate a building, Lego skyscrapers behave differently than real skyscrapers. Lego walls are rigid, whereas steel-framed skyscrapers are relatively elastic.
These are not 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. It's sad that Lego seems worried about this, that it introduced those ridiculous Lego people in 1974 to people our empty, 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 Lego — 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 will make you wish for exactly what Lego wishes for, too: that you had more bricks to play with.