Adam Reed Tucker walks into the room with more purpose than anyone wearing cargo shorts and boat shoes generally has the right to. But Tucker is not just a tourist making his way through Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) to score some astronaut ice cream. He’s one of only 14 Lego master builders in the world, and he’s spent the last year working 16 to 18 hours a day with a war chest of six million Lego bricks to reconstruct 13 architectural wonders for the new hands-on engineering exhibit, Brick by Brick.
Even though Tucker created Lego’s architecture line, the new installation represents his most staggering accomplishment yet. His builds include the Great Pyramid of Giza, complete with a removed cross section revealing the maze of tunnels and a gold sarcophagus; the Burj Khalifa, which at 12 feet tall almost touches the exhibit’s ceiling; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, with an undulating foundation that perfectly contrasts Wright’s crisp architectural lines. Then there's the exhibit’s pièce de résistance: A 60-foot, 64,500-brick depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with load-supporting suspension cabling.
But just hours from opening, Tucker is staring at the empty pedestal where his 42,800-brick recreation of the Hoover Dam is supposed to be sitting. Instead, it lives in several large pieces, organized in two open-face plywood boxes, at his feet. His projects are too large to move in one piece, so everything is designed in his suburban studio to be transferred modularly.
"Is everything done? Nope," he’d told me a day earlier. "Will it get done? Yes. As you know, an artist’s work is never done, but it will get to the point that enough’s enough, and it’s time to install it."
Now, it appears, is that time.
Tucker is an architect by trade who, eight years ago, decided more or less on a whim that he wanted to build models to teach the public about architecture. He went to the store and considered several options, like Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs, before he loaded a shopping cart with Lego—a toy he hadn’t played with since childhood—because it represented, to him, the great equalizer of construction. Because Lego requires no skill whatsoever to stick two pieces together—unlike cutting and gluing balsa wood models—anything he built out of Legos could become an inspiration to others. You didn’t need to be skilled to build like Tucker, just creative.
Less than a decade later, Tucker’s completely self-taught method has given him international prominence. He constructs all of his models without computer assistance, instead choosing to study photos and sketches. He builds and rebuilds his models in a laborious process of self-editing. He works with his hands until he finds a successful approach to building any structure—and it will support itself, without the addition of steel wiring or glue. "If there are illusions behind the surface, to me, that’s not fair," he says. And by avoiding cheats, he believes that the audience can intrinsically recognize that his constructions are real.
It’s the sort of point that sounds more philosophical than practical, until I saw it for myself in Tucker’s rendition of the Gateway Arch. Arches are self-supporting by nature, but their individual blocks—known as voussoir—need to be wedge-shaped. This poses a problem for Tucker in that Legos are rectangular. And when you look closely, you can see around the outermost edges of the arch, the Lego bricks are actually pulling apart from one another, with their male and female connectors exposed, because he’s pushing his materials to their geometrical limits.
Similarly, Tucker’s Golden Gate Bridge is so impressive not because it’s so large, but because it isn’t just a stagnant sculpture. Its Lego-based cables actually support weight, just like a real suspension bridge, and you can see the forces from people’s feet nearby transfer to the dangling hangers, which vibrate like a self-strumming harp, cuing you that the magic in front of your eyes is real.
However, it’s impossible to look at Tucker’s creations for long before you’ll get the itch to build Legos yourself, and MSI’s exhibit has been curated to allow several opportunities. Staff will lead visitors in impromptu, Lego-based design challenges. A Duplo area features Lego walls for the youngest children, and one area has troughs of ivory Legos for you to create the pretentious architectural model of your dreams.
But my favorite simulation is actually completely Lego-less. It’s an earthquake table that gives you 15 seconds to build a structure out of wooden blocks before the surface shakes to bring it all crashing down.
Tucker’s race against the clock isn’t nearly so dramatic. As a dozen contractors, lighting technicians, and volunteers zigzag to finish the exhibit, Tucker occasionally pulls someone aside, whispering a command that cuts through the construction noise with all the understated efficiency of a Scorsese character.
He strolls to the back of the room and squats down to lift the final chunk of the Ping An Finance Center into place. The cherry on top of untold hours of work clicks onto its base in a second. Tucker wiggles it once checking for stability, and without a moment of celebration, walks away to finish another build.
Brick by Brick is open now through February 2017.
All Photos: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago