When architect Jeanne Gang first set foot in the Great Hall of the National Building Museum in 2003, she noticed something peculiar. Sounds seemed to float away between the atrium’s immense Corinthian columns. Standing 10 feet from someone, you could hardly hear their voice. “It feels like you’re outside in the middle of a big field,” Gang said.
At the time, Gang was showcasing a translucent marble curtain for the exhibition “Masonry Variations.” Now, she’s back for “Hive,” the latest installation in the museum’s annual Summer Block Party series, debuting Thursday. (Originally scheduled for Tuesday, the opening day has been delayed due to construction, according to an announcement posted on the museum’s website.) More than 2,500 interlocking paper tubes form a set of three interconnected, domed acoustic chambers. Inside, visitors can experiment with drum-like tubes and chimes, exploring how sound travels and changes .
“The whole structure works like a clearing in a forest. The tubes are like the trunks of trees,” Gang explained. “It makes it an intimate acoustic space.”
Gang’s architecture and urban design practice, Studio Gang, is known for its work on such innovative projects as Chicago’s Aqua Tower and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Gang’s inspiration for “Hive” stemmed from the geometric patterns of nature, the famous domes of the classical world and recent social movements.
“People ask about the colors a lot,” Gang said, referring to the paper tubes, which are silver on the outside and magenta on the inside. “The magenta paper was inspired by watching all of the pink and magenta at the Women’s March.”
Past Summer Block Party installations, such as “The Big Maze” (2014), “The Beach” (2015) and “Icebergs” (2016) were social media successes, with the ball pits of “The Beach” attracting record-breaking numbers of visitors.
This year, the museum’s Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections, Cathy Frankel, hopes to offer visitors a “multisensory” experience, which will allow them to reflect on the ways that a structure can shape how we perceive light, sound and even human interaction.
The installation’s shape also showcases the building process itself. “This is real architecture — this is how a dome is built,” Frankel said. “People can see… the notching and everything.”
Studio Gang spent six months designing “Hive,” creating both digital and physical models — including one made out of toilet paper rolls — to determine exact dimensions. Once plans were complete, Chris Maclay, master carpenter for the museum, and his team had only a few weeks to assemble the installation. That meant cutting notches into thousands of tubes of various sizes and weights (the largest is almost 200 pounds) and fitting each together.
Maclay has worked for the National Building Museum for 14 years and found “Hive” to be one of his most challenging assignments yet.
“It’s like Legos on steroids,” he said.