WEST L.A. — It’s rare that childhood pastimes translate into adult pursuits, particularly when they involve small plastic building blocks.
Don’t tell that to Thomas Musca, a 16-year-old junior at Santa Monica High School who is taking a Legos obsession to a whole new level in an art exhibit that resurrects projects in Los Angeles that never made it past their conceptual stages.
“Never Built: Los Angeles” will feature buildings and even infrastructure proposals that never quite got off the ground, sometimes to the benefit and other times to the detriment of the Los Angeles of today.
The exhibit, which is expected to open in July at the Architecture and Design Museum in West Los Angeles, is the culmination of over two years of work by co-curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin who scoured research institutions, libraries and “brain trusts” of historians and architects to dredge long-forgotten projects out of the dustbins of history.
Musca has been tasked to recreate a Catholic “skyscraper cathedral” originally conceived by Lloyd Wright, the son of architectural innovator Frank Lloyd Wright, entirely out of Legos.
As strange as it sounds, Musca has some experience in these matters.
He first created a Legos recreation of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, designed by his favorite architect Cesar Pelli, for a third grade project at Roosevelt Elementary School.
Goldin knew Musca through family friends, and when he and Lubell selected the cathedral for the project, he knew Musca would be capable of bringing the concept into reality.
“I knew Tommy was going to be interested in this ‘Never Built’ project,” Goldin said. “We started talking about what to do with this pair of columns in the museum. … We talked about turning the columns into ‘never built’ sky scrapers.”
The fact that both Lloyd Wright and his father used pre-cast concrete slabs in their work only made the concept of using Legos more perfect.
The building itself was meant to be a tower that never got past basic sketches.
Without official renderings, Musca had to be creative. He first expanded the sketches using architectural software and extrapolated the result into plans for the Legos shell which will enshroud one of two columns in the museum.
The completed work will be a single, free-standing layer of Legos that will not rely on the column for support.
The challenge of the assignment lay less in the recreating of the tower and more in seeking out the most efficient way to do so. Musca, after all, is still in high school, and can only devote weekends to building the project because of classes and a passion for competitive bicycling, a sport that will pick up again in coming weeks. Time was a factor.
And, while your average Legos set may not seem too pricey, things change when you have to buy in bulk.
Even with the slim envelope, Musca’s project requires 70,000 of the small plastic building blocks and, at a quarter a piece, that equates to roughly $17,500 for his piece of the exhibit alone.
Fortunately, the museum can get a deal on the pieces which brings the cost down to a more manageable $7,000.
“We’re on a budget,” he said. “I needed a design with the smallest amount of pieces that was also the easiest to build.”
Musca’s skyscraper will be one of two in the floor plan designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects. Each will stand on a map of Los Angeles carefully crafted so that the two columns jut out approximately where the original skyscrapers would have been located.
His will be only one of a myriad of entries in the exhibit, which will also include selections of a book by Lubell and Goldin that includes many of the “never built” projects that had to be left out of the exhibit.
Lubell and Goldin chose those that would appear in the exhibit based on the availability of materials with which to recreate them as well as the impact that they might have had on Los Angeles, Lubell said.
“There were revelatory plans for Los Angeles that would have transformed it,” Lubell said.
Something called the Olmsted Plan would have imbued the concrete jungle of a city with huge amounts of open park space. Planners had also envisioned an extensive subway network that would have riddled the city with underground transportation when it was still cost-effective to do so.
Angelenos are facing the impacts of that project’s failure today with the furor raised by the path of the “subway to the sea” now expected to go under Beverly Hills High School.
Not all of the projects were winners, however.
People mulled building an off-shore freeway in the Santa Monica Bay between Santa Monica and Malibu, for instance, or a grid of the high-speed roads that would have literally blanketed the city, ensuring that no Angeleno would be more than four miles from a freeway.
For his part, Musca might argue that the building he’s recreating might be left off the list of projects to mourn.
Asking which projects might have improved the city is an exercise in the counterfactual — it’s impossible to determine what would have made the best possible Los Angeles, although both curators point to the parks plan as a solid choice.
“Los Angeles is not an ideal city, but what city is?” Goldin said. “What we learned is that there have always been ambitions to make Los Angeles a much better city than it is, and they were run up against terrible institutional, economic and political obstacles that reveal this alternative vision of a city that I suppose would have been a better place.”
They hope that the exhibit will expose some of the fantastic things that could have happened, had the ideas not been broken on the walls of Los Angeles’ bureaucratic inertia.
“I hope people will have a new view of Los Angeles, that they can change their perspective of what they think the city is,” Lubell said.
Step one, however, is making sure the exhibit gets seen at all.
Even with museum-level discounts, the project is still expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars. The team is trying to raise $40,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and, halfway there and with 38 days to go, they have a chance.
Kickstarter is a risk — if you don’t raise all of the money you request, you get none of it.
“I’m optimistic for the Kickstarter goals,” Musca said. “We’re 60 percent there and we have over a month.”
If you have any interest in exploring the Los Angeles that could have been, head over to Kickstarter.com and search “Never Built: Los Angeles” to donate.