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First Look: BIG's BIG Maze at the National Building Museum

By Amanda Kolson Hurley
July 7, 2014
Photo © Kevin Allen
At 57 feet square and 18 feet high, the maze occupies the eastern third of the National Building Museum's Great Hall.


The vast Great Hall of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is as tricky to program as it is impressive to behold. More than 300 feet long and several stories high, the Renaissance Revival hall is often rented out for private events, and its columns and arcades provide a suitably grand backdrop during gala dinners. But the space tends to swallow up lectures and other small-scale public programs. To make better use of it, the museum installed a giant maze as the centerpiece of its summer programming.

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On July 4, the Bjarke Ingels Group’s BIG Maze opened in the hall, part of the museum’s annual Summer Block Party, which includes crowd-friendly events such as Sunday concerts and an outdoor barbeque stand. Even at 57 feet square and 18 feet high, the maze occupies only the eastern third of the Great Hall. What better way to emphasize the building’s colossal scale than to insert another, roofless structure inside it?

Ingels and his team designed the maze to engage all three dimensions, so that museumgoers can see and enjoy the plan from inside its maple plywood walls as well as from the galleries above. The architects achieved this by sloping the walls down toward the middle. When you reach it, you’re rewarded with a clear view of the whole maze, and can also take in the museum’s soaring architecture. “The idea is that while you’re still in the maze, suddenly you see this amazing three-dimensional landscape,” Ingels said in an interview. “You see all the complexity from the heart of it. Spatially, the experience is somewhat more exciting than the typical maze.”

From a ski-slope trash incinerator in Copenhagen to a Shanghai Expo pavilion that encouraged visitors to bike up the concourse and swim in the pool, BIG has made play a guiding principle of its designs. So it’s no surprise that the firm would build a maze, or that it would choose a maze over a labyrinth. As a panel on an outer wall of the maze explains, labyrinths have winding passages, but not dead ends; the slow, circuitous path encourages contemplation. Mazes, on the other hand, are puzzles.

At a preview before the official opening, visitors’ styles of navigation seemed to differ as much as their personalities. Some made a beeline for the middle, while others sought the outermost corners and took pleasure in their wrong turns. “I had anxiety attacks that it was going to be too easy,” Ingels said. “But it’s actually pretty confusing.” The sloping walls are a kind of ruse, suggesting, as they decrease in height, that you’re on the right path, but maybe you’re not. 

BIG Maze is open through September 1, 2014. It is a prelude to a larger museum exhibition of BIG’s work, set to open on January 15, 2015. Provisionally titled amBIGuity, that show will take over the entire Great Hall, with objects suspended inside each of the 72 arches that run along the second-floor balcony.

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