Lego's 'Towers of Tomorrow' exhibit features Detroit buildings

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Invented in 1958, the humble Lego has come a long way from the primary-color plastic bricks you probably remember from your childhood, a shift dramatically underlined by the Henry Ford Museum’s exhibition, “Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO Bricks.”

Up through Jan. 5, this is a show architecture buffs and kids will enjoy in equal measure. And indeed, on Election Day when lots of children were out of school, the exhibit was mobbed by enthusiastic members of the elementary set.

But then, what’s not to like about a four-foot high re-creation of New York’s iconic Art-Deco Chrysler Building, or an equally impressive replica of architect Wirt Rowland’s orange-brick Guardian Building in downtown Detroit?

The recreation of downtown Detroit was built by the members of MichLUG, a users' group of LEGO enthusiasts.

"I love it," said Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford's general manager of innovation experiences. "I absolutely love it. When I'm having a bad day, I circle back to the Lego exhibit, look in and see how the kids are doing."

Part of what gives this show its snap is the fact that most of the models sit on large tables, surrounded by chairs. There are several bins of Lego bricks of all descriptions, and visitors are encouraged to construct their own towers, while looking up at the behemoths above them. 

"The pride the kids have in what they make is heartwarming," Jones added. "That sense of ‘I did this!’ is genuinely inspiring." 

The Fort Street Union Depot, which used to stand where the Detroit campus of Wayne County Community College is today, looks great in LEGO blocks.

The non-Detroit models are all the product of Australian Lego-meister Ryan “The Brickman” McNaught. The Melbourne resident and crew put in nearly six months assembling the 577,000 bricks to give form to their 20 skyscraper models on view.  

The 128-story, twisting Shanghai Tower alone consumed 104,800 bricks.

Pulling together the touring architectural show, McNaught said, was “an incredible challenge -- pushing the almost limitless possibilities of Lego.”

Limitless, indeed. Not content to restrict himself to buildings, McNaught years ago built a scale model of a Qantas Airlines A380 jet, complete with happy little plastic passengers.

The Detroit buildings here -- including, in addition to the Guardian, the Buhl Building and the long-gone Union Depot at Third and W. Fort -- were all constructed by local enthusiasts in MichLUG, or the Michigan Lego Users Group. 

The Art Deco, iconic Chrysler Building in New York City is the third model from the left, part of "Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO Bricks" at the Henry Ford Museum.

Jones says the group always brings in Detroit models as part of the museum's holiday displays, but that she reached out to them when she locked in "Towers of Tomorrow" to see if they'd like to contribute to the show as well. 

"They were ecstatic, of course," she said. 

The concept of Lego as legitimate architectural tool hit the big time with the 2015 book by Tom Alphin, "The LEGO Architect." 

A review in Architect magazine noted, "Never was there a medium more predisposed toward the creation of miniature Brutalism," and suggested Legos would work well in constructing a scale model of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier's ultra-modern capital of Punjab and Haryana states in India.

For her part, Jones hopes "Towers of Tomorrow" encourages some youngsters to think about architecture or engineering as career paths. 

"I think it might," she said. "I say that because we watch how long folks stay. We have families who come in at 9:30 a.m., and by noon Mom and Dad are going, 'Well, shall we look at the Rosa Parks bus? Or how about a hot dog?’"

"Towers of Tomorrow," up through Jan. 5, even tackles Detroit's Guardian Buildilng (left) and the Buhl Building.

You know an exhibition's a success when you have to drag the kids from it.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO Bricks'

Through Jan. 5

The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood, Dearborn

9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week 

Museum admission: $24-adults, $22-seniors (62+), $18-kids (5-11); members enter free

(313) 982-6001