(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?
“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.
This 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.”
With one glance, it’s clear this isn’t your kids’ LEGO exhibit. It’s not that they won’t enjoy it, because they most certainly will. My 11-year-old son and his friend will attest to that. Their jaws were dropped in awe walking through the exhibit space. They were officially blown away. So were the adults.
I found the exhibit much more of an art exhibit than a toy display. We took the kids to the LEGO Castle Adventure exhibit in the same space just a few years ago, and although I wasn’t expecting a repeat theme, I certainly wasn’t imagining dramatic structures of this detail, beauty and scale.
LEGO artist Adam Reed Tucker takes the familiar building brick out of the box and uses it in some not-so-familiar ways to create remarkable replicas of some of the world’s architectural icons. Some buildings included in the exhibit are the Empire State Building, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Sky Needle, Transamerica Pyramid, Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Also part of the exhibit is Detroit’s Ford Field. The completed structure will be moved for unveiling and display at the field on Thanksgiving then returned to Henry Ford Museum the next day.
Tucker was on hand the opening weekend of the exhibit. He continued work on the Ford Field replica, took time to answer questions, sign autographs and even gave an impromptu tour.
An architect by trade and in practice, the tough economy put Tucker in a position of reconsidering his life’s work. After years of working with computer renderings in the business side of architecture, he had a desire to create with his own hands and inspire others to do the same. That’s where building with LEGO came in.
Tucker came up with a plan to use LEGO to recreate some famous buildings and sell them. In an effort to get reacquainted with the building bricks - he hadn’t built with them since before high school – he said he went to Toys R Us and filled 13 baskets with LEGO kits. (There was an audible gasp from the children present.)
Adam Reed Tucker demonstrates creative repurposing of a standard LEGO piece.
Tucker said the reason he chose LEGO was simple: to inspire others. “I wanted to teach people about architecture and encourage them to build models with just LEGO pieces. Using LEGO doesn’t require glue, putty or any special skills or tools.” He said the only difference in skill is in how you use LEGO. For many of the buildings in the exhibit, he creatively repurposed parts by at times using them in ways not originally intended.
Tucker came up with the concept of “artitecture” and his work eventually led him to an association with LEGO as a creator of LEGO Architecture sets.
Playing with LEGO as a child fed Tucker’s interest in architecture, and now in some ways he has come full circle. I asked him if he ever in his wildest dreams thought he’d be doing this, he laughed and said, “No, I didn’t.” But he also said he plans to continue doing it for the rest of his life.
I can honestly say, I will never look at a LEGO quite the same. I’m not sure if that means I won’t howl quite as much when I step on a wayward piece, but I will recognize the piece for the possibility, potential and inspiration it can bring to the minds of the young and old.
The exhibit includes a very large LEGO play area for visitors of all ages to put some of their newly found inspiration into practice. My son and his friend spent nearly two hours creating some architectural gems that they eagerly added to the growing LEGO city display table.
It seems like LEGO has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. What started as a few simple sets, like this basic building set from the collections of The Henry Ford, from friends and family has turned into hundreds of boxes sprawled over a customized workshop in my own house.
I was always good at entertaining myself as a child and took to LEGO early. The collection was initially stored in a small tub, but eventually graduated to a chest of drawers. I removed my clothes and found a less suitable storage solution for them. LEGO was far more important and this allowed me to hover over the drawers and build my creations on top of my dresser.
My parents somehow put up with this and continued to feed the obsession. Before I out grew my bunk beds, they were an ideal surface to create towns, space campus or medieval battlefields. I have a pretty strong imagination and LEGO helped grow and develop it.
To this day, when asked what I would like for Christmas, I always respond, "LEGO."
LEGO bricks are such a fascinating medium because you can visualize 3-D objects simply and effectively. It works best for creations that are angular with straight edges. It's also a great medium for prototyping simple machines and casting moulds.
So just how important are my LEGO sets? I designed and built a LEGO workshop in the basement of my house. Having a space like this has helped me tackle new projects, like picture mosaics and 3-D logos.
Were you at Maker Faire Detroit? If you were, than you might have seen me as Nick Brickly, host of my Brick Challenge game show. It's a LEGO-based game show similar to Double Dare. We ask questions and challenge contestants to mini games. Join the fun on stage Saturdays in January 2013 at Henry Ford Museum.
I can't wait to see LEGO Architecture: Towering Ambition when it opens its doors tomorrow. Just like Brick Challenge, the LEGO Architecture series and the work of Adam Reed Tucker are great examples of how LEGO is more than a toy - it's a medium for creation and communication.
Nick Britsky is Royal Oak-based LEGO lover and maker. A participant of Maker Faire Detroit since 2010, you can catch him on stage at Anderson Theater this winter as part of LEGO Architecture: Towering Ambition's Saturday programming.