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250,000 LEGO's can't be wrong: BIG at the Graham





 -by Lynn Becker

[February 19, 2008] - You have only through March 1st to catch The BIG CPH Experiment, Seven New Architectural Species from the Danish Welfare State, the season's first great show, at the Graham Foundation.
UPDATE: This exhibition has been extended through Saturday, March 22nd


The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Having been somewhat put off by the long draught in public programs at the Graham Foundation after Sarah Herda was named Director in 2006, and just because I'm incredibly lazy, I took my sweet time in seeing her first exhibition here. Big mistake. The BIG CPH Experiment: 7 New Architectural Species From The Danish Welfare State, is a great show. You have only until March 1st 22nd to
see it.
The BIG CPH Experiment: Seven New Architectural Species from the Danish Welfare State, Exhibition at the Graham Foundation

Like Xefirotarch , Joe Rosa's show from SFMOMA, BIG CPH is a carryover from Herda's alma mater, New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture, where it ran last fall just before opening here last December 6th. In the place of Rosa's sometimes drear polemics, however, BIG CPH offers up runway-beautiful models, provocative, irreverent thinking, and a sly wit.

It's the product of Copenhagen's Bjarke Ingels Group, which takes on the drab architecture of the Danish Welfare State, in the context of a ban on tall buildings in the city center even in the face of a critical shortage of affordable housing for the city's working class. (Strange how the fruits of the Welfare State seem eerily similar to those of laissez-faire Chicago.)

Even the least interesting of the seven experiments on display (up from 5 in New York), has its merits. What looks like a putting green for a miniature golf course turns out to be a proposal for a massive former airfield that has been turned into a continuous quilt of soccer fields. What appears to be the low white frame of the putting green is, in fact, BIG's idea for a continuous structure along the perimeter of the field that would house 5,000 families. It's not very successful. Even with large openings, it creates the kind of middle-ages moat/wall that European cities resolved to tear down centuries ago. But don't miss the video of a local TV program where a man who may be the ultimate NIMBY trashes every aspect of the proposal, even as the architect - "charlatan" is about the kindest thing the NIMBY has to say about him - keeps popping back up like a duck in a shooting gallery with still more sets of graphic boards explicating the wonders of his project. Scala Tower, The BIG  Experiment: Seven Species From the Danish Welfare State, exhibition at the Graham Foundation

The most beautiful part of the exhibition is the stunning model creating for the Scala Tower, a skyscraper configured to mediate the stark, uninviting footprint such mega-projects usually present at street level, with a gently rising slope of public terraces drawing their inspiration from Rome's Spanish Steps.

Indeed, terraces, public or private, are a major BIG tool for creating a city of human scale. In MTN, 100 residential units cascade, complete with individual terrace gardens, over a large parking garage, which is faced in a perforated metal screen that resolves into the world's largest image of Mount Everest. (Eat your heart out, Joe Rosa.)

The most spectacular model of the exhibition is the firm's LEGO Tower, "A thousand plateaus ascending and descending, separating and merging to form a fluid space of private and public plateaus." It's BIG's homage to a Danish construction industry that relays not on poured-in-place concrete, but pre-fab components. "Contemporary Denmark has become a country entirely made from LEGO bricks . . . So it prove this was really doable with standard techniques, nothing would be more disarming than if you could build it in LEGO."

BIG worked with a LEGO website that allowed them to design the model on-line, and then order the 250,000 pieces required to build it in the flesh. The detail is incredible, right down to the Dean and Deluca Grocery Store, trendy restaurant, and health club, complete with exercise bicycles, on the ground floor. Perhaps most importantly, the model is fully populated by no less than 1,000 LEGO residents engaged in all manner of activities from sleeping, watching TV and gardening, to forming human pyramids. Its sound whimsical, which it is, but it adds a component completely missing from most models, a conception of how the people using it might interact with the building.

It's hard not to like an exhibition where a wind tunnel test consists of an architect blowing on two models. 60 Minutes had a segment last Sunday on the Danes being the happiest people on earth, which was attributed largely to their low expectations. The BIG CPH Experiment, however, suggests that an inbred modesty and strong sense of humor are far from incompatible with dogged intelligence or wild ambition, but can, instead, be a spur to original thinking about merging high urban density with humane living. The installation of show across the warm wooded rooms of first floor of the Graham's home, Schmidt and Garden's 1902 elegant Madlener House, embraces that ethos more than any white-walled gallery ever could.

Do yourselves a favor and see this show. (You, too, Mr. Mayor.) Just don't do it all at once. It runs only through Saturday, March 1st, 11 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., Wednesday through Saturday. On Friday, February 29th, Bjarke Ingels will be giving a lecture at the UIC School of Architecture, 845 West Harrison, 6:00 P.M.  

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© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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