Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

(This story ran in the fall edition of Living History magazine)

At first, you can’t quite believe your eyes — towering models of architectural icons, some of them 18 feet tall. The Empire State Building. St. Louis' Gateway Arch. Frank Lloyd Wright's masterful Fallingwater. Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower. They’re breathtaking.

What’s most remarkable, though, is that these models are constructed completely of LEGO® bricks. Not specially engineered bricks. No, these eye-popping models are made of nothing more than standard, out-of-the-box LEGO® pieces.

The models are all part of LEGO®Architecture: Towering Ambition, which runs until Feb. 24 in Henry Ford Museum.

Even though this is definitely a grown-up approach to LEGO® bricks, it’s hardly a somber one. As you make your way through this city of monumental plastic behemoths, the “wow” factor is in full force. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see anything like this again. (Don’t worry — we haven’t forgotten the kids. There’s a LEGO® pit, where they can test their chops in LEGO® construction.)

But what exactly are these monster-sized creations? LEGO’s latest marketing gimmick? The work of a madman or an off-kilter visionary? The obsessive project of a guy with way too much time on his hands?

LEGO Structures

“I wouldn’t call myself obsessed,” laughs Adam Reed Tucker, the 40-year-old Chicago architect who created these behemoths. “I consider myself an innovator, so maybe a better word is ...” He pauses, looking for precisely the right word to describe what it is that drives him.

It’s a revealing moment. This isn’t just a guy searching for a word. This is a glimpse at Tucker, the perfectionist — exacting, precise, focused and determined to find the absolute best way to accomplish a task, even if it’s just searching for a better word. You hear it when he talks about his work. And you most definitely see it in these immense models.

A few minutes after he resumes talking, he interrupts himself.

“Maybe ‘driven’ is a better word,” Tucker says. But right away, you sense that he’s not satisfied with it.

The Chicago SpireThis show, organized by the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., has proven to be one of the most popular in the 27-year-old museum’s history. That’s hardly surprising, given the prodigious combination of skill and imagination that Tucker’s lofty creations demonstrate.

It’s this combination that led LEGO® to award him the status of LEGO® Certified Professional. But Tucker, who created these works before he had any official standing with LEGO®, downplays the title.

“Really, all you have to have is an existing brick-based business,” says Tucker. But then, almost as an afterthought, he mentions another prerequisite. “You have to use the LEGO® brick in a way that is unique and innovative.”

Apparently, that last requirement is not particularly easy to satisfy, as Tucker is just one of 11 people in the world to receive the certification.

“I’m consumed with exploring and pushing the envelope of where the LEGO® brick can go,” says Tucker, speaking by telephone from his home in suburban Chicago. “I’m enamored by all of the usefulness that LEGO® harnesses within itself — education, philosophy, team-building, therapy, art, science.”

Notice that he never mentions the word “toy.”

“Here’s the thing,” says Tucker, finally getting to the idea he’s been champing at the bit to share. “LEGO® is my artistic medium. These bricks are, to me, what paint is to a painter, what metal is to a blacksmith. My medium of choice is plastic bricks that happen to be called LEGO®.”

Marc Greuther, The Henry Ford’s chief curator, understands precisely what Tucker is talking about.

“Even as a child, I understood that there was something rational and linear about LEGO® bricks,” says Greuther. “But I also understood that they were not literal. They were not something that existed in the real, grown-up world. You could use them to build things that were fanciful. But what you built was a reflection of your imagination and not of an architect’s drawing.”

It’s no coincidence that Tucker refers to himself as an “architectural artist.” You won’t find him doggedly following blueprints or schematics as he makes his structures. He’s trying to capture the essence of these buildings, not mimic every tiny architectural element. Compare a detailed photo of the original structure with one of Tucker’s creations, and you will immediately see that, while they are very similar to one another, they are not the same.

“I would be completely delusional to think that I could replicate anything in this world using square LEGO® bricks,” says Tucker. “I prefer to think of what I do as abstract interpretations. I let your imagination fill in the details. I’m more interested in a given structure’s pure sculptural form.

“Trust me, if you try to make something that a brick doesn’t want to be, it will not work. Even children eventually understand that.”

events, Henry Ford Museum, making, toys and games, LEGO

Bob Casey, automotive historian and former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”

Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.

Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?

Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.

How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?

In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.

On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.

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research, Ford Motor Company, by Jeff Seeno, by Bob Casey, books, Henry Ford