In the lobby of the new International Spy Museum in Washington, a diorama depicts a raggedy looking man in a loincloth, perched atop a tree, staring out at an aerial drone hanging from the ceiling. And there in a nutshell is the essence of the 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.
This $162 million building, which opened last week, is part of an effort to fill in some of the heroically scaled blank spaces in L’Enfant Plaza along 10th Street — a five-minute walk south of the National Mall — which was once meant to be a cultural center but evolved in the late 1960s and early ’70s into a little-loved district of Brutalist concrete buildings set in a desolate plaza.
The building itself is likely to become an attraction. It was designed by Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in London. 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 to the ground. The exterior metal skin, which the architects call “the veil,” is fitted with lights that define its shape at night. In views from Interstate 395 just to the south, the building suggests some kind of spaceship or top-secret communications hub — windowless, alien, and slightly forbidding.
The building 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, visitors are issued an identity card with a spy alias that allows them 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 warren of smaller rooms and connecting corridors. So these black-box museums are often wrapped or swaddled in something to give them form.
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 museum, which was formerly situated north of the Mall near the National Portrait Gallery, 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 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 though 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 looks straight out of a carpeted convention center.
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 — takes place in dark corners. 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 by creating a building that, like spying, is intriguing rather than beautiful.
The museum is operated privately as a nonprofit organization (and is among the few museums in Washington that charges admission), and its exhibits aren’t always sufficiently critical of their topic. So it’s hard to connect with this institution in the way one does with the Smithsonian museums or the National Gallery of Art nearby.
Torture is dealt with in a section that reverts to the "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" one label blandly states.)
And although there is mention of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on a federal office building, which killed 168 people and injured more than 650, 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.
Philip Kennicott is architecture critic of the Washington Post.