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Paper or Plastic? Palladio Versus Lego at the National Building Museum

November 15th, 2010
Palladio’s much emulated Villa Rotonda, one of several works now showcased at the National Building Museum.

Palladio’s much emulated Villa Rotonda, one of several works now showcased at the National Building Museum.

Two current exhibitions at the National Building Museum represent an interesting dichotomy in American architecture. I was there recently with my son, and it was fascinating to examine the shows side by side. The first exhibit, Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey, showcases 31 rare illustrations by the 16th-century Italian architect, along with lovely plaster models of famous classical works that demonstrate his influence in America. It is a sedate, erudite exhibit, its scale small and its objects clearly precious.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in Lego form.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in Lego form.

The other exhibit, LEGO® Architecture: Towering Ambition, is a fun, large-scale celebration of the famous injection-molded plastic building blocks – as well as several iconic works of Modern architecture. Adam Reed Tucker, an architect and so-called “Lego Certified Professional” (a title that only 11 people hold worldwide), has re-created 15 of the world’s most famous buildings for the exhibit, including the World Trade Center, the former Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), Fallingwater, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Dubai’s new Burj Khalifa. This last structure reportedly incorporated more than 450,000 Lego bricks.

Both exhibits are stunning in their own very different ways. The Palladio exhibit features books and drawings from the Palladio collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The drawings on display are so finely detailed that they elevate classical building elements to works of art, while simultaneously making them accessible and comprehensible to any layperson. Looking at them, one can readily understand how Palladian pattern books became the basis for iconic American buildings such as Mount Vernon, the White House and Monticello.

The exhibit is greatly enhanced by beautiful plaster models of Palladian buildings created and lent to the exhibit by Timothy Richards, with bas-reliefs by Ivan Simonato. To see these Palladian concepts and drawings in three dimensions was smart; it vividly shows how a simple, symmetrical five-part house plan creates absolutely perfect buildings. Thomas Jefferson, Palladio’s most famous champion, was a genius to use these forms as the symbol of American democracy, and I left the exhibit feeling inspired and reverential about both Palladio and Jefferson.

The Lego exhibit could not come across more differently. Whereas the Palladio exhibit is darker and serene, crowded with words and framed drawings and models, the Lego exhibit is all brightness and openness. Guards hovered at Palladio; at Lego, we had the space to ourselves. Part of that, of course, is the nature of the objects. I assume that the curators had to light the Palladio exhibit in such a way that protected its rare works. Lego bricks need no such consideration. Tucker’s re-creations are colorful and (I can think of no better word) neato. As I walked from building to building – most of which rose far above my head – I kept thinking, how did he do that? But I also couldn’t help but feel that the two exhibits represented the very nature of traditionalism versus modernism. One was about building context and classical precedents; the other, about standing tall and apart from your neighbors.

Modern buildings prove to be quite adaptable to the medium. Skyscrapers require much repetition, obviously, that is easily replicated in Lego bricks, and swirling, computer-aided designs are already more “plastic” and less organic than their traditional counterparts. Interestingly, the artist is re-creating the White House in Legos over the course of the exhibition as well, and I couldn’t help but feel that the Neoclassical building just didn’t work as well in this format as the modern towers. I wonder whether the ghost of Palladio would be pleased that Tucker has attempted it, or annoyed.

As the Washington Post‘s Phil Kennicott mentioned in his review of the show, Tucker builds his models out of the most basic Lego pieces, eschewing all the highly specialized, creativity-killing building kits (with licensed images from Star Wars, Disney and others) that the Lego corporation now pumps out by the millions. This is to be applauded. Like the Palladio exhibition, the Lego models celebrate the basic nature of building, brick by brick, arch by arch, column by column. Both exhibits are edifying and exciting in their own ways.

Palladio and His Legacy closes January 9, 2011. Lego: Towering Ambition runs through September 5, 2011.

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