The National Building Museum speaks for the building arts.
As Jim Pate, the executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, took center stage to accept an award, he articulated a serious dilemma his city had faced. New Orleans’s musical heritage, an ineffable, irreplaceable treasure he described as the city’s soul, resided in the hands of a few people — the long-time musicians who had lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In a city besieged with so many problems following the storm, a group of contemporary musicians and friends devised a plan: Providing safe, affordable housing would allow valued New Orleans musicians to stay.
On the evening of Tuesday, May 11, 2010, Pate stood in the spotlight before a large crowd on a dais in the great hall of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The honor award he accepted, bestowed on the founders of New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village (a group that includes Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., and Ann Marie Wilkins, as well as Pate), came from the National Building Museum.
No one commented that night on the niceties of the architecture, no kudos about the subtleties of the planning. The resultant housing, simple structures with front porches slightly elevated above the flood plain, sported bright, multicolored facades in the Upper Ninth Ward. Instead, residents described how the new clustered grouping allowed friends to visit, to pick up an instrument, and to play together. Most importantly, no one had been forced to leave the city that had given jazz to the rest of the world. Then several of the musicians took to the stage in Washington and rocked the hall.
In highlighting the underlying cultural mission of Musicians’ Village, as well as the other honorees that evening, including the architectural firm Perkins+Will and the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, the museum spoke for all of us engaged in the building arts. Since 1980, when it was established by a Congressional act, the National Building Museum has grown into a major voice helping to advocate for and increase understanding and appreciation of the built environment.
Its awards programs, however, are only a small part of an organization that maintains a vibrant roster of offerings. The museum has focused on a special kind of building enterprise: Rather than concentrating on structures, the museum has worked on building a culture. Those of us enmeshed professionally in design — whether architects, interior designers, landscape architects, or engineers — and those of us who make projects (the craftsmen, contractors, or suppliers) rarely think of our industry in this way. We worry about our invoices, or the next request for proposals, or a completion date. Yet our actions result in changes that affect the whole world — its economy, its energy usage, its health and happiness, its worth.
Our actions, whether as citizens, owners, participants, users, or design and construction professionals, taken collectively, create the built environment. The National Building Museum — an institution that needs to be better known — recognizes the importance of what we do, stands back, examines the intentions and the results in toto, and exhibits them for all to see. At its best, it provides a forum for the dissemination of information, for education, and for debate, throwing a spotlight on what works and what doesn’t. We need this platform.
A quick glance at its calendar of live programming gives an indication of the diversity of its offerings in addition to its educational programs and exhibitions: programs on alternative housing in post-disaster Mississippi, on architecture and diplomacy (think embassies), on innovative parks as components of urban revitalization, on American building codes and how they do or do not prepare for the next “Big One,” and a discussion arising from the innovative exhibition currently on display, House of Cars — subtitled, The Future of Parking. On one evening, Benedetta Tagliabue will speak on her own work and that of her late husband and partner, Enric Miralles; on another day, the museum will tour Fort McHenry Visitor Center in Baltimore. And that’s just part of June.
The institution is both blessed and cursed by its magnificent home. Few would deny the splendor of the structure, the former home of the U.S. Pension Bureau, designed by Montgomery C. Meigs and constructed from 1882—87. To look up between 75-foot-tall columns rivaling those of the ancient Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek (72 feet high) in a space measuring almost the length of a city block (316 by 116 feet) offers a rush unequal in all but a few other immense baskets of space, such as St. Peter’s in Rome or St. Paul’s in London.
All other places within the building must defer to that grandeur, which is perfect for grand moments. However, important exhibitions are relegated to secondary spaces on the perimeter. Despite the museum’s sometimes brilliant programming (for example, certain shows on building materials, such as Liquid Stone, a 2004—6 exhibition on concrete — translucent, tactile, electrified — or Big and Green, held in 2003), curators must inevitably feel cramped, if not diminished, by low ceilings and narrow spaces in adjacent galleries.
Lectures and debates either take place in one half — usually, at one end — of the major space, where a shaft of sunlight can ruin a PowerPoint, or in an awkwardly sized auditorium space. Staff works in a crow’s nest, high above the melee of screaming school children awaiting the start of their workshops and educational sessions below. Staff offices are remote, small, and uncomfortable. While the building as a whole serves as a reminder of what builders can do, it nevertheless must prove difficult to work in.
But this is quibbling. At a time when design has never been more important, when human-made interventions to the built environment are producing profound changes to the natural world, including energy usage and carbon emissions, when demographics insist that we are moving to cities throughout the world as populations increase, we know the profound implications of our actions. One institution, the National Building Museum, led by executive director Chase W. Rynd, understands the importance of developing a supportive culture for the built environment. We need it more than ever, and we need more institutions like it.
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