The Exhibitionist: National Building Museum builds on the spirit of design


The Lego Architecture exhibition at the National Building Museum (MARVIN JOSEPH/WASHINGTON POST)
July 22, 2011

This is the fifth in a series of weekly guides to museums
you may not have discovered.

A museum about buildings might not sound like a great idea on its face. Buildings . . . inside a building? But the National Building Museum (which is a beautiful space unto itself) sheds light on the back stories of buildings, revealing the narrative behind the structures we see and inhabit every day. Find out how Americans imagined the future in “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.” “Walls Speak” examines the cultural impact of Hildreth Meiere, the American muralist and mosaicist, while “Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition” brings iconic buildings down to the size of those small, plastic blocks. There are two permanent exhibits, “Washington: Symbol and City” and “Cityscapes Revealed”; three, if you count the “Building Zone” for youngsters.

Bright lights, big city: George Washington wanted the White House to be a grand estate. Thomas Jefferson would have preferred a more humble country home. The White House is one of those D.C. landmarks whose construction we take for granted. The “Cityscapes Revealed” exhibit allows you to imagine an alternate city by displaying the process behind the buildings: the alternate designs for each monument, the conflicting ideas, the evolution of these projects from early sketches to realized structures.

Little boxes: At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, more than 2,000 people per hour waited in line to see General Motors’ “Highways and Horizons.” The installation featured an exhibit called “Futurama” in which visitors, seated on a conveyer belt, saw beneath them a 35,000-square-foot model of superhighways and suburban sprawl. Forty-five million people attended the fair that year, making it one of the largest.

Another side: Alongside re-creations of model homes and shiny new appliances are exhibits that tell another story: One-third of Americans in the 1930s had inadequate housing, and the houses that were appealing were rarely made available to African Americans, whose neighborhoods’ reputations were adversely affected by the Federal Housing Administration’s “risk ratings.”

Cookie monster: At the Firehook Cafe inside the museum, grab a cookie the size of a dinner plate. The traditional flavors are good, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the Presidential, an oatmeal raisin chocolate chip hybrid. There are salads and sandwiches, too, for those who aren’t into cookies.

Block party: Not only can you see Lego models of famous U.S. buildings — such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the World Trade Center and the John Hancock Center in Chicago — but you can also play architect and build Lego masterpieces of your own while learning facts about the iconic plastic toy, such as that there are about 62 Lego bricks for every person on Earth. Younger would-be architects can practice by playing in the Building Zone, designed for ages 2 to 6.

A million little pieces: Hildreth Meiere produced murals throughout the United States in the 20th century. The “Walls Speak” exhibit explores her work, which included such diverse projects as One Wall Street in New York and the Nebraska State Capitol, as well as information on the art of mosaics.

Gifted and talented: The museum’s gift shop is as impressive as the building in which it is housed. There is a section devoted to toys and games for kids, plus plenty of interesting wares for grown-ups. Browse a book selection that covers topics from D.C. history to typography and, of course, buildings.

National Building Museum

401 F St. NW. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday; 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org. Museum admission is $8 for adults, $5 for ages 3 - 17, students with ID and 65 and older; free for museum members, children 2 and younger, and active-duty military and their families through Labor Day. Building Zone admission is $3. Admission to the cafe, gift shop, Great Hall and docent-led tour of the building is free.

6To see more stories in the Exhibitionists series, visit washingtonpost.com/museums.

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