Washington, D.C. is intense in the summer.
Intensely uncomfortable, intensely unpleasant, intensely godawful — that is, as far as dew points and relative humidity are concerned. A lukewarm soup bowl of a town, the nation’s capitol wasn’t actually built directly atop a swamp as popular myth may lead you to believe, but it sure the hell feels like it anyways.
Located in the midst of this particularly sticky urban heat island across from Judiciary Square, the National Building Museum fully acknowledges the atmospheric intenseness that is Washington, D.C., from June through roughly mid-September. Much like the district’s wealth of other museums and cultural institutions, the National Building Museum offers tourists and locals alike an air-conditioned place of refuge from the brutal heat but with an emphasis, in this instance, on design, architecture, construction and urban planning. It also does a fabulous job, through its annual Summer Block Party Series, of simulating classic summertime diversions that would typically be located outdoors in said horrible, no good, very bad heat.
During the summer of 2014, it was a 3,600-square-foot garden maze reimagined in maple plywood by merrily audacious Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The following summer, it was an honest-to-goodness beach complete with umbrellas and the requisite snack bar. For that installation, Brooklyn-based firm Snarkitecture swapped out sand for spongy artificial turf and water for a veritable ocean of 1 million recyclable translucent polyethylene balls.
Unlike past summers — which have seen the museum’s soaring Great Hall transformed into what would typically be viewed as an outdoor attraction — lauded New York-based landscape design firm James Corner Field Operations, of Manhattan's High Line and Chicago’s Navy Pier fame, has turned the massive space into a place we all think about visiting when the weather takes a turn for the sultry: a vast Arctic ice field.
While there’s no actual ice involved in ICEBERGS aside from that of the shaved and flavored variety, the just-opened immersive installation — on view until Sept. 5 — recreates a glacial landscape using strictly non-frozen materials including polycarbonate panels and scaffolding. Suspended from the ceiling or erected on the floor of the Great Hall, the installation's signature artificial ice masses are positively massive. The most formidable of the ersatz frozen mountains towers 56 feet over the museum floor. Visitors can even scale a staircase located within the three-story pyramidal structure to access an above-"sea level" observation deck that looks out over the Chilly Willy-friendly space.
Enshrouded in waterline-symbolizing blue mesh and dotted with floe-shaped bean bags chairs for optimum chill-out sessions, the 12,500-square-foot space is at turns playful and ethereal — an escape from the scorched city sidewalks to a frozen undersea environment where one can ponder themes of “landscape representation, geometry and construction.”
On Wednesday evenings through the end of August, ICEBERGS will be home to a series of special ticketed events. Expect gourmet grub and lectures on polar exploration. (Photo: Timothy Schenck/National Building Museum)
Chase W. Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum, refers to the installation in simpler terms, calling it “an extreme counterpoint to the sweltering heat of a Washington, D.C. summer.”
And for those who would rather frolic than sit and contemplate significantly cooler climes (while also dreading going back outside into the non-air-conditioned universe), there’s “ice chute” slides to be careened down and an undersea bridges to be traversed. Iceberg factoids are also printed on the sides of the plus-sized icicles themselves. All that appears to be missing are giant misting fans.
While“ICEBERGS invokes the surreal underwater world of glacial ice fields,” explains James Corner in a press statement. “Such a world is both beautiful and ominous given our current epoch of climate change, ice melt, and rising seas. The installation creates an ambient field of texture, movement, and interaction, as in an unfolding landscape of multiples, distinct from a static, single object.”
Adult admission to ICEBERGS is $16 for non-museum members and includes entry to the museum’s other excellent exhibits including Small Stories: Life at Home in a Dollhouse and the not-to-be-missed ongoing exhibition on residential architecture and domestic life, House & Home.
The aforementioned shaved ice, available in flavors such as red bean and mocha and served in traditional kakigori style by Japanese restaurant Daikaya, will cost you extra.
On Wednesday evenings though the end of August, ICERBERGS will host a slew of special programming as part of the museum’s after-hours Late Nights series. Scheduled events include live music, dance performances, edibles presented by rotating guest chefs and talks by polar scientists and explorers. Of particular interest to the iceberg-obsessed is Save Jack!, a “Titanic”-themed affair on Aug. 10 in which “participants will navigate obstacle-filled waters, try to stay afloat on rapidly-shrinking icebergs, participate in an Instagram scavenger hunt, and a group build with LEGO.”
Sounds like an entertaining way to beat Washington's soul-crushing summertime heat if there ever was one. You might even want to bring a sweater. Or better yet, a life jacket.
Inset photos: Timothy Schenck/National Building Museum