From its verdant hills to its white Adirondack chairs, the National Building Museum’s Great Hall sure feels like a summer’s day in the park. But the bird chirps and billowing clouds are not the real deal. “Lawn,” the sixth installment of the museum’s Summer Block Party series, digitally repurposes those summer delights, rooting a familiar scene in unfamiliar territory.
Artificial turf slopes upward via a scaffolding superstructure. The swimming pool deepens into a cavernous fountain, blue light bending within the tunnel of mirrors. Fifty speakers, embedded throughout the exhibit, create an ambient soundscape of dog barks, bouncing basketballs and rolling thunder. The blankets, cornhole boards and chair pillows share an airy blue palette, offsetting the absence of an open sky above. Suspended eggshell-blue hammocks, each outfitted with a speaker, graze the grassy blades below. These speakers offer prerecorded summer anecdotes from a number of special guests, including Bette Midler, Norman Lear and “Booksmart” star Beanie Feldstein.
“I’m giving you my movie voice,” murmurs the disembodied voice of Whoopi Goldberg. “Sit back and appreciate it.”
If past summers are any guide, as many as 80,000 visitors will do just that. In recent years, the large-scale interactive installations that the National Building Museum has erected in its Great Hall — including a twisting, 18-foot-high maze and a sprawling, adult-size ball pit known as “The Beach” — have become a quirky Washington tradition and one of the museum’s biggest annual draws. “Lawn” will run through Labor Day.
Behind this exhibition is the LAB at Rockwell Group, which calls itself an “experience design studio.” Based in New York, the firm seeks to engineer new ways for built environments to tell stories and engage the senses. Often it uses a variety of interactive technologies, including motion graphics and virtual reality. With “Lawn,” its goal is to play with the distinctions between old and new, public and private. It has fashioned a hybrid communal space that reimagines our summer iconography.
David Rockwell, founder of Rockwell Group and the exhibit’s designer, spoke to the importance of making places that are “empathetic to people.” The product of a theater family, he likened the tech behind his exhibits to set design in their shared service to storytelling and memory-building.
“I was looking at how technology could engage people,” he said, “not separate them from their environment.”
Providing ample space to recline, “Lawn” enshrines two more summer virtues: leisure and daydreaming. Rockwell envisions the green serving a meditative function, calling the array of seating options “thought-starters.”
The installation almost fills the entire Great Hall. Its highest point, dubbed “The Porch,” is 54 feet off the ground, offering visitors a nearly eye-level view of the Corinthian pillars’ capitals. At that height, the gold-washed leaves could be confused for natural foliage.
The builders had only a month to erect the entire exhibit. The project involved five tractor-trailers worth of scaffolding and 500 sheets of plywood, not including the handrails and scrims. Transporting the rolls for the cloudscape carpet that marks the entrance to the exhibit required a motor to drag the 900-pound bundles. And the higher they built, the more painstaking the project became, according to Chris Maclay, the master carpenter of the museum, turning “Lawn” into a race against the clock.
“This is the biggest one we’ve done so far,” Maclay said, “and in terms of time frame, this has been more a crunch than any other year.”
Kids seem to have a blast at this exhibit, running around the pool, tumbling down the hills and lobbing beanbags. The LAB at Rockwell Group developed a family-friendly mobile app, also titled “Lawn,” that opens to an augmented-reality video game where fireflies dart across the screen. Clicking on a critter transfers them to a jar, where they can be “released” with another tap to refresh the fun.
“Lawn,” which runs until Sept. 2, will also serve as the staging area for a variety of summer activities at the museum, including yoga sessions, dancing, concerts and movie nights.
National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. nbm.org.
Dates: July 4-Sept. 2.
Prices: $16 adult, $13 ages 3-17.