In the lobby of the new Spy Museum at L’Enfant Plaza, a diorama depicts a raggedy looking man in a loin cloth, perched atop a tree, staring out at an aerial drone hanging from the ceiling. And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Spy Museum, a mix of old-fashioned entertainment like the kind that used to line the highways of America — safari parks and tacky attractions — and a slightly breathless admiration for technology and high-tech gimcrackery. The message of this confrontation between primitive man surveying the savanna and modern, eye-in-the-sky surveillance is simple: The need to see the unseen and uncover hidden threats is as old as the species.
With its move from the Penn Quarter neighborhood to a new, purpose-built building on 10th Street SW, the Spy Museum is making an investment not just in a bigger space, but also in a neighborhood that planners and developers are desperately trying to redeem, from Brutalist office-block dead zone to a lively entertainment and commercial district. The new $162 million building is part of an effort to fill in some of the heroically scaled blank spaces along 10th Street, which was once meant to be a cultural center but evolved in the late 1960s and early ’70s into a little-loved district of exposed concrete buildings set in a desolate plaza. If the museum attracts even more visitors — its annual attendance has been about 600,000 for the past decade — it could help connect the Mall, to the north, with the Wharf development, along the Southwest Waterfront, into one self-re-enforcing tourist and commercial quarter.
The good news is that the building itself could be an attraction. Designed by Ivan Harbour of the London-based Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the museum has a sharp, technologically sophisticated look that is both at odds with its surroundings and organically connected to them. From the outside, it reads as an inverted rectangular pyramid, topped by a cantilevered box, with industrial-looking supports anchored into the ground. The exterior metal skin, which the architects call “the veil,” is fitted with lights that define its shape at night. When one catches glimpses from Interstate 395, the building suggests some kind of space ship or top-secret communications hub — windowless, alien and slightly forbidding.
“Could you make a building which has no particular design precedent?” Harbour asks, repeating the basic design question he and his team faced when thinking through the shape of the structure. “There are no purpose-made spy museums in the world, so how can you create something that has some reference to one of humankind’s most distinctive activities?”
The museum itself is a standard iteration of the contemporary “experiential” museum, in which visitors spend much of their time looking at screens, watching videos and engaging with interactive kiosks. After taking an elevator to the fifth floor, you are issued an identity card with a spy alias, which allows you to play games and take quizzes: “Is it Hollywood or is it reality?” asks one interactive video. The goal, it seems too often, is to muddy the question, with one of James Bond’s Aston Martins in the lobby and quotes from Sun Tzu alongside Harry Potter’s Severus Snape (“I have spied for you and lied for you . . .”).
The space demands of a modern experiential museum are essentially those of a movie theater or Walmart: large, boxy rooms shut off from natural light that can be divided and subdivided into a mazelike warren of smaller rooms and connecting corridors. So these black-box museums are often wrapped or swaddled in something to give them form, such as the “corona” panels that give shape to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The larger design challenge is how to intervene in the highly programmed tour the visitor takes through the enclosed media boxes, allowing for glimpses of daylight and some relationship to the world outside the dark container. The Spy Museum does this with an external staircase encased in glass that is suspended along the front of the museum and with occasional views downward, through slots in the panels of the metal veil.
The Rogers in the firm’s name is Richard Rogers, one of the architects of the Pompidou Center in Paris, an immensely influential building in the history of contemporary architecture. Like the Pompidou Center, the Spy Museum looks a little inside out, with the stairway and a balcony clinging to the outside and what appear to be heating or cooling vents prominently exposed. Also like the Pompidou Center, some of these features are brightly painted and seem connected to the building as if they’re part of a provisional scaffolding that has, for some reason, been left in place after the building opened. But they also give the exterior a lot of muscular energy, which almost makes up for the dreariness of most of the interior spaces, including an events hall that is carpeted to look like a standard-issue convention center.
The Pompidou Center, built in the 1970s, is from the same era as L’Enfant Plaza, and when you see the new Spy Museum next to the old glass-globe streetlights outside, there is a whimsical sense that the firm’s history has come full circle.
There’s no more fashionable word in architecture today than transparency, but the Spy Museum, like other experiential museums, isn’t about transparency. The experience requires a dark space just as the subject matter — surveillance and covert operations — take place in the dark corners of our man-made world. The building can’t glorify its contents in the same way an art museum can be a temple of art, or a history museum conceived as a kind of national monument. The architects have finessed this problem, creating a building that, like spying, is intriguing rather than beautiful.
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners designed another very fine building in Washington, for a law firm at 300 New Jersey Ave. NW, back in 2009. But it would be nice to see the firm build something that feels fully public spirited, and the Spy Museum is definitely not that. Although it is a nonprofit museum, it charges admission. Its exhibitions aren’t always sufficiently critical of their topic. Torture is dealt with in a section that reverts to the amoral “some say it works, other say it doesn’t” formula used during the Bush years to obfuscate the country’s willing embrace of barbarism. A text panel on Alan Turing doesn’t mention that he was homosexual and, for that reason, was brutalized by the very state he had served as a code-breaker (“he was not recognized for his wartime work during his lifetime” reads one blandly evasive label). And although there is mention of Timothy McVeigh’s terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, a section on terrorism around the world is predominantly devoted to attacks by radical Islamic groups, even though in the United States, since 2001, the greatest danger by far is from right-wing extremists.
So it’s hard to love the institution in the way that one loves the National Gallery of Art or the Smithsonian or the Phillips Collection or the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It would be delightful if the same designers who have wrapped the dark spaces of the Spy Museum in such fine form would now create something that could be universally enjoyed and admired.
The International Spy Museum, 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW. spymuseum.org.