Traditional architecture exhibitions are often boring and dense—just how many scale models, axonometric drawings, and jargon-stuffed manifestoes can one person endure? But over the last few years, the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., has taken a decidedly different tack with blockbuster installations that include minigolf, ball pits, and mazes–sneaking a lesson or two about the built environment in between.
“Everyone knows what an art museum is, but the largest challenge we have is that nobody knows what a building museum is,” says Chase Rynd, the museum’s executive director. “Since we’re the only ‘building’ museum, we have to educate people on what we do.”
Cathy Crane Frankel, the museum’s vice president for exhibitions and collections, leads the curatorial program and is tasked with communicating the world of architecture to museumgoers. “While we are a museum about buildings and the built world, we can’t show things at full scale,” she says. “What we do differently than other museums who exhibit architecture is we talk more about process and how people use the spaces. By seeing the installations, visitors understand how they fit in with the built world.”
And in doing so, Frankel and her team have created a series mega-hit installations inside the museum, attracting international attention and countless visitors.
The NBM’s crowd-pleasing programming shift started somewhat spontaneously in 2012.
Rynd and the curators were trying to find another use for the Great Hall within the museum’s circa-1887 building, a soaring seven-story tall atrium supported by 75-foot-tall Greek columns and surrounded by classical colonnades. It’s frequently rented out for social events, but the rental business slowed to down in the summer. At the same time, tourists were flooding the city during those months. Why not try and do something different to attract new audiences to the museum? “We’re taking full advantage of having this incredible space,” Rynd says. “Using it in a surprising way enhances our reputation as being a place to come back to—things are always changing.”
With about seven weeks to execute a concept, they decided to build a minigolf course with the help of D.C.-area architects, landscape architects, and contractors. The experiment worked.
“We were a bit stunned at how popular it was virtually overnight,” Rynd says. “That made us stop and think and say, maybe it’s not a one-off. The next year we did it bigger, planned better, and worked with a lot of community partners. Simultaneously, we did pop-up restaurants and called it the ‘Summer Block Party.’ People could come to our great lawn, hang out, and have a beer. It was a festive atmosphere we thought would be great to retain. We became a destination, and it was because we’re doing attractive, fun things.”
In 2014, NBM decided to scrap the minigolf idea and do something different: a massive maze. The strategy behind that type of activation was pretty savvy: In addition to being an interactive installation that invited visitors to move through the space, it also enticed people to head to the upper floors to get a bird’s eye view and potentially wander into the other galleries.
Frankel and her team were at work on Hot and Cold, a show about Bjarke Ingels’s work, and thought he’d be perfect to design the maze. “[Ingels] has a playful, boyish sensibility, and we had come up with a concept of a maze and asked them to do it,” Frankel says. BIG constructed the labyrinth out of Baltic birch, its 18-foot-tall walls gradually sloping down toward the middle, making it easier for people to complete the maze. It was another runaway hit–it even became the site of a marriage proposal.
For the next installation, Frankel did something unusual: She asked Ingels who he’d pass the baton to. He nominated Snarkitecture, the Brooklyn-based firm that’s earned a reputation for clever, visually arresting, and highly Instagrammable architectural work, such as COS’s mirrored L.A. pop-up, a Styrofoam ice cave for fashion designer Richard Chai, and a concept shop for streetwear brand Kith with a ceiling composed of 700 all-white casts of Air Jordans. “We gave them a really open brief—make it interactive, make it beautiful, make it memorable,” Frankel says.
Snarkitecture came to Frankel with the idea for The Beach, essentially a big pit with filled with one million translucent balls. The space was far from a Chuck E. Cheese retread, though. In creating an all-white abstraction of a beach—complete with lounge chairs and an Astroturf “shore”—Snarkitecture sculpted a space that was simultaneously familiar and new to spark contemplation (if you weren’t too busy horsing around). There’s a playful element to the installation, which spoke to all ages.
Moreover, the museum found that the tactile nature of the space appealed to visitors with disabilities. “Attendance has grown by leaps and bounds every summer, and the summer installations have diversified our audience,” Frankel says.
The next firm to tackle the space is James Corner Field Operations, which the museum invited because it does great work and is a landscape design firm in particular—a fact that speaks to the museum’s mission to be about buildings and the spaces between them in equal measure. Field Operations is building Icebergs, “an ambient field of texture, movement, and interaction” that speaks to climate change.
“These fabulous extravaganzas make people stop,” Frankel says. “Say you’ve got an iceberg in between seven-story-tall columns. People take that step back and look a little more. In this day and age people are looking at their phones more than looking up. We’re building that skill of looking at recognizing what’s going on, and that choices are made in what’s constructed.”
While the roster of architects has grown organically—”I wish I could say we have a magic formula, but we don’t,” Frankel says—they all share similarities in the accessible nature of their projects. “They’re all so discerning in their design decisions and how their work will interact with the public,” Rynd says. “As we talk about next year, we’re looking at who has that public engagement element in their work, not just in the design of the buildings, but how they add social value.”
The museum is also working to improve audience engagement through tweaking its public and educational programming, and is building a new visitor’s center. On the digital front, it participated in the Google’s Cultural Institute program to map its galleries on street view. “We’re trying to be responsive to the fact that the world is changing and we’re competing with a lot of other opportunities in the city and country,” Rynd says. “We need to be fresh—hip, if you will—and not be dated. We’re making sure we’re as timely as we can possibly can be.”
With its progressive curatorial strategy that makes important and sometimes weighty topics—from conceptual architecture to climate change—digestible and fun, the National Building Museum is well poised to keep the architecture conversation lively. And a ball pit never hurts.