If you blinked, you missed it. The entire run of tickets to the inaugural exhibition at Dupont Underground, “Raise/Raze,” sold out almost immediately after going on sale. Despite the vast size of the project area, covering about half of the venue’s 14,000-square-foot eastern platform, space was limited to about 40 or 50 people at any given time.
If that doesn’t give a sense of the scope of Dupont Underground’s first show, try this: 650,000 tennis ball-sized transparent plastic orbs, glued and velcroed together to form cubes, the cubes stacked to make structures. It looked even more expansive when the balls filled boxes that lined a curving wall for several city blocks underneath Dupont Circle.
If all else fails: Imagine Minecraft in an actual mineshaft.
“Raise/Raze” could be the last Dupont Underground show. That’s no knock on the board or programmers who made it happen. It’s merely a recognition that Dupont Underground—which, for those who have been living underground elsewhere, is an abandoned former trolley station-turned-art pop-up space—still faces some challenges. “Raise/Raze” clarified some of them, while exposing others.
The project is the work of Hou de Sousa, a two-person architecture firm (Jia Min Nancy Hou and Josh de Sousa) based in New York. It is also partly the work of Snarkitecture, another two-person design firm that brought the plastic balls to D.C. in the first place last summer for “The Beach,” an architectural installation at the National Building Museum. Hou de Sousa won the contest of proposals to take apart “The Beach” and put it back together—to turn its building blocks into building blocks, as it were.
If for no other reason, “Raise/Raze” is a winning show for realizing the sheer possibility of using elemental forms and thinking creatively about hand-me-downs. The architects figured out that plastic balls bonded together would have some struxtural strength (thanks, Buckminster Fuller). And indeed, they stack ably; they make reasonable seats, even. The plastic spheres are every bit as convincing as the parts of object-forms as they were as a sea of ballpit.
Despite the common currency, “The Beach” and its successor could not be more different from one another. “The Beach” felt intimate, creating as it did a patch of private beach indoors, offering personal scale while gesturing at a vast expanse. (No mean feat inside the cavernous Building Museum, which absorbs everything it shows.) “Raise/Raze,” given something else to work with—a grungy utility corridor from one of the Saw films, maybe—invested the place with repetitive form and modular program. Where Snarkitecture got to build a beach inside a museum, Hou de Sousa had to create both the context and content for Dupont Underground.
Hou de Sousa didn’t realize all of their preliminary designs for “Raise/Raze.” That’s for the best: Some of their early concepts for breaking up the space into coherent areas, like forming blocks into the shapes of giant words or the Capitol building, were too soft. Better instead to focus, as the architects did, on the immersive and architectural aspects of the installation. As with LEGO, which are more fun when they’re bricks that can be turned into anything and not part of a structured playset, the “Raise/Raze” cubes work best when the user can decide how they fit together.
If only there were more of the show. Or maybe just more people. (Fire codes prevent Dupont Underground from turning the space into an underworld dance party, which is what it wants to become.) There was nothing more that Hou de Souza could do to overcome the vastness of the space. Given all the restraints, in terms of timing, funding, and precedent (little, little, none), “Raise/Raze” is a milestone. To be a blockbuster, it would take more.
More, more, more: That’s going to be a Dupont Underground refrain. More people, more materials, more money. With its first show on the books, the venue looks to finding more of everything.
Through June 1. New Hampshire Avenue NW at 11 Dupont Circle. $16.82. Limited number of tickets available at the door. dupontunderground.org.