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Museum of the American Latino May Supersede Smithsonian’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (And Other Revelations From Unbuilt Washington)

A shot of Morphosis' interior design for the Museum of Arts and Industries. (National Building Museum)

The Smithsonian has a museum up for grabs—if only it can finish renovations—and deciding what to do with it has been contentious. Some people want to devote the Museum of Arts and Industries to entrepreneurship and innovation. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others introduced legislation that would turn it into a Museum of the American Latino, which has been seeking a home for years.

When you get a chance to see the National Building Museum's new exhibit on Unbuilt Washington, though, you'll learn about what the Smithsonian itself had in mind: They retained Los Angeles-based Morphosis Architects to mock up some designs for the interior of the building, and they're pretty spectacular. It's designed to create a "virtual index" of the Smithsonian system, with "touchstones" for each element (arts, science, history, etc.). The scale model and "fly-through" video depict a stunningly reshaped inner architecture, with plane-like ramps slicing through a giant black intestine that twists its way through the space, even cutting into walls. I don't have the images at the moment, but will update if I can get a hold of them [UPDATE: Got it!]

That's just one of the pieces on display in the new exhibit that makes you go huh. My other favorites include:

  • The "National Sofa," a 1995 idea to put a video screen on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House where people could watch the first family go about their business.
  • A 1929 plan for East Capitol Street out to what's now RFK Stadium that would create an "Avenue of the States."
  • A 1989 proposal for the Dolphin America hotel just north of the Capitol that would include deep pools for dolphins.
  • A 1940s design by Frank Lloyd Wright for Crystal Heights, a gigantic hotel at the intersection of Florida Avenue and Columbia Road that would have tall, thin towers, a shopping arcade, a theater, and a garage for 4,000 cars. It was rejected not for its size, but rather for its mix of uses.
  • A plan by Cloethiel Woodard Smith for a bridge over the Washington Channel that would have shops and restaurants along a main promenade, dubbed a modern Ponte Vecchio. Curator Martin Moeller said this was the project he would have most liked to see built.
  • A 2002 proposal for a "Tensegrity Bridge" across the main atrium of the Building Museum itself, which would be made of glass rods held together with cables that could bear a human's weight. It would just cost a few million dollars to build.

The exhibition's artifacts are a mix of ideas that were either too innovative for their time, too absurd to contemplate, or just too impractical and expensive to build—a study in counterfactuals that will shift how you look at the stuff that actually did make it to completion.

  • Will

    Thom Mayne & Morphosis is my least favorite starchitect/firm working today. How they get contracts is beyond me. Take a look at the CalTrans building in LA, it takes its architectural cues from a marooned battleship, and is about as attractive as the death star.

    Rant part 2: I think its time to stop with the ethnicity based museums on the mall. I like American Indian & African American museums because it reflects the American histories of two sizable groups who did not choose to migrate here. That's not really true of other groups, including my own ancestors. I'm sure others would argue the US conquest of Mexican territory should be part of the "not our choice" category, but then what else? Louisiana purchase, Acadians (Cajuns), French Trappers? Spanish heritage Floridians? British loyalists who stayed in the 13 colonies?

    These are important histories, and collectively create the American identity, and deserve their own museums. But their own museum on the mall? I don't go that far. Put them in the American History museum.

  • Thayer-D

    Enough of these ethnicly themed museums (on the Mall)! I totally agree with Will that it's the National Mall, and as such should exhibit things that speak to the whole nation. As for Thom Mayne & Co., the reason they get contracts is the same reason we still hear from the likes of Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhouse etc. They have managed to convince many institutions that they are on the cutting edge of culture by persuing the revolutionary over the evolutionary, despite the fact that similar work gets produced in most graduate schools of architecture every day. Not to discount revolutions when actually warranted, but it's like playing craps, you jumble up the shapes with the latest computer program, sautee it in a steaming heap of archibabble, and roll the dice. You'll eventually get some sucker to feel like they are sharing in the glow of greatness.

  • knowingwhatimsaying

    Will and Thayer-D: well put. As someone who has worked at Morphosis, I couldn't agree more. Enough of this shit.