Generally speaking, the central problem of presenting architecture in a museum setting is how to communicate a three-dimensional medium designed to work in great spaces in two dimensions and miniaturized.
The Norton Museum of Art has solved this by interpolating a large display of skyscrapers built to scale out of Legos in the middle of an otherwise formal architecture exhibit.
It sounds wacky — the Lego skyscrapers initially struck me as excessively kid friendly, as in, “Why would anybody over the age of 10 care?” But because of the sparks struck by the unexpected juxtapositions, it works. The Legos loosen up the formality of the exhibit, and the weight of the surrounding exhibit makes the Legos less juvenile than they would otherwise be.
The exhibit is a collaboration between Ellen Roberts, the museum’s Curator of American Art, and Photography Curator Tim Wride. Their two disciplines complement and strengthen each other, because shifting context can bring fresh life to a familiar piece, although there are many pieces that are unfamiliar because they’ve been in storage at the Norton, some unjustly so.
I was particularly bowled over by Richard Hamilton’s copper sculpture of the Guggenheim Museum that energizes the space around it, not so much by the sculpture, well-executed though it is, but by the vaulting ambitions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design which are every bit as striking in miniaturized form as full-sized. The Guggenheim is a farewell to a certain kind of curving architectural ambition that wouldn’t be reborn until the rise of Frank Gehry’s metal waves.
In terms of photographs, there are some great, gleaming, large format works — Andreas Feininger’s “RCA Building” and “Midtown Manhattan from Weehawken N.J.” These are images of a city too big to be conquered, as is my favorite Feininger, a 1949 shot of Times Square at night. There’s a fine Alvin Coburn as well, and Richard Haas’ “The Ansonia” is a painstakingly rendered drypoint etching of the famous hotel that was a remnant of the Gilded Age.
Modern photographers are represented by Jim MacMillan’s “First Light 9-12-01,” a shot of the smoking ruins of the World Trade Centers. Firooz Zahedi contributes a selection of photographic abstracts of clear cubes that are rendered in intense Kodachrome-style colors with the help of colored backdrops and fill lights. The result is like a selection of walls by Mies van der Rohe in an unaccustomed mood of exuberance.
As for the Lego sculptures that interrupt the show, they’re large and, in their own way, impressive examples of obsessive-compulsive artistry constructed out of a child’s toy. The structures range from the Flatiron Building, the Chrysler Building, the Burg Khalifa in Dubai and a batch of others. They range in height from four to nine feet and took as much as 78 hours to build. Given the structure of the Lego blocks, straight lines are easier to achieve than the curved structures favored by post-Gehry architects, but designer Dan Parker accomplishes it all the same.
The Norton also provides a room full of Lego blocks for kids of all ages to build to their hearts content after being inspired by Parker’s work.
After the Legos, the exhibit segues back to sobriety with a display relating to predominantly Spanish Palm Beach architecture, featuring several original Addison Mizner drawings.
It’s a show with something to offer just about anybody, and it speaks well for the museum that the collection is deep enough to provide such a wealth of material.
IF YOU GO
ARCHITECTURE IN DETAIL and BLOCK BY BLOCK: Though Oct. 20 at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach.
• Later this month in Accent: An interview with Dan Parker, builder of the Norton’s Lego exhibit.