The Great Hall at the National Building Museum is one of the best and most overlooked interiors in Washington, D.C., but for the past three summers the museum has commissioned interactive installations that capitalize on the voluminous space, and draw in new visitors. This year’s installation, ICEBERGS, designed by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, opened on July 2 and runs through September 5. Where previous installations—Snarkitecture’s giant ball pit, “The Beach,” and “The BIG Maze” by Bjarke Ingels Group—focused on singular experiences, ICEBERGS take a more multifaceted approach.
The designers have turned the entire Great Hall into a “glacial sea” defined by a blue scrim material, studded with polycarbonate “icebergs.” From the inside, the scrim is a little too open, making the boundaries of the space difficult to discern, and the exposed screws and visible skeletons of the icebergs weaken their illusion as monolithic objects. But upending our perceptions is also where ICEBERGS is most successful. The largest icebergs open up to create inhabitable spaces, including one housing a scaffolding stairway that leads to an observation deck above the “water line,” and then to a slide (or “ice chute” as museum promotional materials describe it) that deposits visitors back inside the “sea” where they can rest on ice shard-shaped bean bag chairs. The installation even provides an educational component, with iceberg-related inscriptions scattered throughout.
Still, the most striking visual experience of ICEBERGS is from the outside, especially from the second and third floor balconies that ring the Great Hall. From above, the blue scrim creates a crisp rectangular box within the space, and the true scale and ambition of the installation comes into focus.
All photos by David Douglass-Jaimes