Finding the beauty within

Washington: The National Building Museum has hands-on exhibits and a spectacular great hall.

Short Hop

January 14, 2001|By Alison Arnett | Alison Arnett,Boston Globe

With all the hoopla surrounding the inauguration of George W. Bush next weekend, visitors to Washington may overlook one of the capital's lesser-known architectural gems -- the National Building Museum.

In a city of monolithic white stone and marble, the building museum sits on its own, a vision in red brick -- 15 million of them -- like a child's outsize creation in Legos.

Located at Fifth and F streets N.W., in Judiciary Square, the museum is a bit of an anomaly. Instead of boasting patriotic displays of government or American history, it is dedicated to the very tangible craft of building, and supported with both public and private funds.

Its oddity and its location can make a detour a respite in a tour of the nation's capital, away from the crawl along the Mall and the blizzard of facts and images about former -- and current -- presidents and long-deceased dinosaurs. All of this can get pretty abstract after a while, especially for younger tourists who crave hands-on experiences.

This area of the city, north of the Mall and near the convention center, is in the midst of transformation from urban decay to a lively stretch of small art galleries and restaurants along Seventh Street. The new MCI sports and events center and several theaters also add life to the area.

In front of the museum is an open-air monument to law enforcement officers killed on duty that offers a spot for quiet thought and space for children to stretch their legs. The memorial is a connected series of marble pools flanked by stone plaques listing the names of officers and watched over by bronze lions and lionesses guarding their cubs.

A grand space

The museum, sometimes called the Building of Buildings, looms above the small plaza. The exterior, all of red brick, is imposing, but inside the heavy doors is what architect Philip Johnson has called the "most astonishing interior space in America."

Walk into the great hall and all the noise of the outside city falls away. A fountain in the center burbles, and sunlight cascades through the high windows and atrium-style glassed-in ceiling. Marbleized columns soar 75 feet, topped with ornately carved finials and arches. The sheer space and 15-story height of it is soothing -- a little vacation in a city where a vacation can be hard work.

Designed by a Civil War quartermaster, Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the building, originally the Pension Office, was planned to be healthful as well as grand, airy as well as economically more feasible than the grander stone and marble neighbors. The entire building is brick, including the columns and the interior walls, which are covered with plaster.

Meigs, an engineer and a bridge builder, envisioned his building along the lines of Italian Renaissance palaces where rooms along the sides faced into a central courtyard. In his version of the Farnese Palace in Rome, the courtyard is covered, but the giant center hall with its many windows and atrium roof lets light and air into the offices around its edges.

Compared with the Smithsonian museums, the place is uncrowded. Judging from the informed conversations of those taking a guided tour who nod knowledgeably about trusses and bearing weights, many visitors work in a construction-related field. Others seem mostly interested in the beauty of the building, and a troop of Cub Scouts and their fathers study the collection of bricks from all over the country.

The exhibits, fitted into rooms that had once been offices, give glimpses of the real world. One, called "Wood, an American Tradition," which runs until late April, presents examples of different varieties of wood, diagrams on building with it, and beautiful examples of wood artistry. There are large models of house frames, tools used in wood carving, and explanations of veneer and plywood.

Touchable models

One of the youth-friendly aspects of this and other exhibits here is that many of the models can be touched. A schedule of participatory activities ranges from telling of forest tales to workshops where families can create birdhouses, puzzles and picture frames.

Exhibits explore such themes as landscape design, urban sprawl and how to deal with the economic and social health of suburbs and cities. One, called "Monuments, Mills and Missile Sites," displays photos, documents and other artifacts of American engineering. A permanent display concerns Washington and how it was built.

But the museum is not all weighty topics. A second-floor exhibit called "Tools as Art" is a fascinating look at tools through artists' eyes. Some pieces are clever but straightforward; in "School of Fishes" by Arman, vise grips held together with welded steel really do resemble a fast-moving aquatic crowd. Others tweak the theme. "Insomniac Bed" by Scott Lesiak is a collection of hammers, pulleys, cranks and bolts poised to ruin the sleeper's rest. Another piece, by Mr. Imagination, who began his art career while recovering from a coma, presents paintbrushes that morph into jaunty people.

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