Like crippling humidity and left-standing tourists on Metro, madly popular architectural follies at the National Building Museum are a staple of summer in D.C. But as traditions go, the museum’s annual Summer Block Party, combining avant-garde design with food and entertainment, is a young one.
In 2013, the museum was looking for a new way to use its immense Great Hall, so it invited local architects to design holes for a temporary mini-golf course there. The following year, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels built a concave maze out of plywood in the hall, and in 2015 a studio called Snarkitecture filled it with hundreds of thousands of white plastic balls for The Beach, which burned up social media and broke visitor records. Last year, Field Operations went in a more meditative direction with Icebergs, a stylized Arctic landscape.
This summer we are invited inside the Hive: three large domes ingeniously assembled out of thousands of paper tubes, the design of architect Jeanne Gang and her Chicago-based practice, Studio Gang. A beehive is a wonder of nature because the colony builds its internal structure—a cellular honeycomb encoded in the bees’ DNA.
Fittingly, Hive offers its own structural derring-do. The domes were given just the right curves to be self-supporting, so they require no framing or columns. Paper tubes may be a humble material—and what the architects used for their first model (toilet-paper rolls) was even more so—but Studio Gang saw the museum’s invitation as a chance to explore new structural possibilities, as well as to conjure some eye candy. In fact, those purposes are one and the same here. Jeanne Gang knows how to make engineering look good: At her Aqua tower in Chicago, the rippling concrete balconies that form its profile actually help break up the winds that pummel the 82-story building.
Your first encounter with Hive might give you a jolt even if you think you know what to expect. The main dome is 50 feet high, the tallest structure ever built inside the Great Hall. (It was supposed to be 60 feet, but had to be curtailed during construction when the tubes started to lean. This really was an experiment.)
Entering from F Street NW, the mounds rear up in front of you like a mountain range. Colored silver and hot pink and slotted together in spiraling rows, the tubes are an impressive sight, but Hive was designed with another of our senses in mind. To counter the unfriendly acoustics of the vast hall, Gang wanted to make the domes into sonic retreats, chambers where musical notes bounce off the walls and whispers travel. Sound and its relationship to space is the installation’s theme, and through Labor Day, the museum will host concerts and “interactive sound experiences” inside the domes.
Hive itself encourages us to prick up our ears in novel ways. In one of the smaller domes, a series of chimes hang from points above and connect to cardboard tables below with lengths of fishing line. Tug on the lines and notes ring out. Some of the chimes are made of non-musical objects, like wrenches.
But the main attraction sits inside the other minor dome, reached through the big one via a low-roofed passage. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine with arms and teeth: a tubulum, or tubular xylophone, made out of plumbing and garden pipes by acoustic engineer John Tewksbury and percussionist Steve Bloom. Visitors can “play” the tubulum by smacking table-tennis paddles against the pipe ends. It is sheer, ridiculous fun.
Not only that, the fun at Hive is age-agnostic. Anyone from a toddler to a grandmother can get a kick out of whacking the tubulum or tinkling the chimes. In this, the show is more broadly accessible than last year’s Icebergs, which required climbing stairs to take in the whole vista and had a slide scaled to tiny bottoms and short legs.
Whether each of Gang’s domes has a recognizable “sound signature” was hard to tell at the press gaggle, and the last-minute changes to the main dome may have affected its acoustic properties. Regardless, the emphasis on sound is very welcome, because it’s a crucial and underrated aspect of how we navigate the world around us.
Walking in and out of the domes, peeking through the gaps between the tubes and listening to the tubulum, I kept thinking about a new book that describes the human experience of place in lucid, remarkable detail. In Welcome to Your World, critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen summarizes a raft of research into neuroscience, psychology, and architecture, writing vivid case studies to explain how our “embodied cognition” works.
Although Hive is temporary and uses simple materials, it offers the kind of rich multisensory experience that Goldhagen says our brains crave from the environment around us. The domed forms, so big yet paradoxically held inside the container of the museum, challenge our sense of spatial awareness, prompting us to gauge and re-gauge their scale and our proximity to them. (Scientists call this sense “proprioception.”) The spiral pattern formed by the tubes is a fractal, proven in studies to activate the brain’s pleasure center and reduce stress. The openings (oculi) at the top of the domes bring in daylight and draw our eyes up to the ornate details of the 19th-century Great Hall, causing more synapses to fire.
Hive isn’t the irresistible selfie backdrop that The Beach was, but no doubt it’ll still be popular for that purpose, especially with regular nighttime parties catered by Hill Country. This again begs the question whether summer spectacles divert audiences from more meaty and serious exhibits. I recommend balancing things out with a trip through Architecture of an Asylum, the museum’s excellent show on the history of St. Elizabeths. If interactive blockbusters bring in the funds to mount good scholarly exhibits like that one, we all win.
And don’t feel bad about taking selfies. Goldhagen writes that we experience our bodies both egocentrically (from within) and, less often, allocentrically (from without). So it stands to reason that uniting those two modes—as the selfie’d architectural encounter lets us—may deepen our experience of a moment, our connection to a place. You can ’gram away without guilt at Hive. You’ll be feeding your brain, not just your vanity.
At the National Building Museum to Sept. 4. 401 F St. NW. $5–$16. (202) 272-2448. nbm.org.