Unbuilt Washington

New Exhibit at the National Building Museum Explores What Never Was

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The National Sofa could have made a '90s-era reality show of the First Family.

    The Smithsonian has a museum up for grabs -- if only it can finish renovations -- and deciding what to do with it has been contentious.

    Some people want to devote the Museum of Arts and Industries to entrepreneurship and innovation. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others introduced legislation that would turn it into a Museum of the American Latino, which has been seeking a home for years.

    When you get a chance to see the National Building Museum's new exhibit on Unbuilt Washington, though, you'll learn about what the Smithsonian itself had in mind: They retained Los Angeles-based Morphosis Architects to mock up some designs for the interior of the building, and they're pretty spectacular.

    It's designed to create a "virtual index" of the Smithsonian system, with "touchstones" for each element (arts, science, history, etc.). The scale model and "fly-through" video depict a stunningly reshaped inner architecture, with plane-like ramps slicing through a giant black intestine that twists its way through the space, even cutting into walls. We don't have the images at the moment, but will update if we can get ahold of them.

    That's just one of the pieces on display in the new exhibit that makes you go huh. My other favorites include:

    • The "National Sofa," pictured above: A 1995 idea to put a video screen on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House where people could watch the first family go about their business.

    • A 1929 plan for East Capitol Street out to what's now RFK Stadium that would create an "Avenue of the States."

    • A 1989 proposal for the Dolphin America hotel just north of the Capitol that would include deep pools for dolphins.

    • A 1940s design by Frank Lloyd Wright for Crystal Heights, a gigantic hotel at the intersection of Florida Avenue and Columbia Road that would have tall, thin towers, a shopping arcade, a theater, and a garage for 4,000 cars. It was rejected not for its size, but rather for its mix of uses.

    • A plan by Cloethiel Woodard Smith for a bridge over the Washington Channel that would have shops and restaurants along a main promenade, dubbed a modern Ponte Vecchio. Curator Martin Moeller said this was the project he would have most liked to see built.

    • A 2002 proposal for a "Tensegrity Bridge" across the main atrium of the Building Museum itself, which would be made of glass rods held together with cables that could bear a human's weight. It would just cost a few million dollars to build.

    The exhibition's artifacts are a mix of ideas that were either too innovative for their time, too absurd to contemplate, or just too impractical and expensive to build -- a study in counterfactuals that will shift how you look at the stuff that actually did make it to completion.

    Museum of the American Latino May Supersede Smithsonian’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (And Other Revelations From Unbuilt Washington) was originally published by Washington City Paper on Nov. 17, 2011.