The National Building Museum (NBM) reopens today following an extended closure due to Covid-19. The Museum had closed for renovations in December of 2019 to its concrete floor slab, and it was slated to reopen on March 13, 2020—in time for its 40th anniversary—but growing concerns of coronavirus forced a hasty shuttering instead. After the 16-month closure, the NBM returns with updated interiors and a slate of exhibitions designed to welcome a gradual swell of visitors as safely as possible.
The museum now boasts a fresh visitor center beside the northern entrance to the building. Visitors begin their journey alongside a celebratory wall of artifacts as they queue for admission. Beyond are two bays of immersive, didactic displays that attempt to clarify what the NBM means by the built environment, from the scale of the skyline to that of the shingle. “It's done in a very direct way for people to understand about the materiality and the consequence of buildings,” Dr. Brent Glass, the interim director of the museum, said in an interview. “The interest in climate action and the built environment is getting more attention, and even the cost and the carbon emissions of producing steel and concrete are becoming recognized as a problem.”
The intense interest in materiality weaves through three exhibitions that mark the museum’s reopening. On the second level is an in-depth retrospective of MASS Design Group, titled Justice Is Beauty, which demonstrates the firm’s driving ethos—that affordable architecture need not sacrifice aesthetics. The firm’s work continues into the Great Hall with a prototype for its Lo-Fab Pavilion, which was designed in collaboration with faculty and students from Virginia Tech for the 2015 Boston Design Biennial, and serves to funnel visitors into a much more contemplative space. The Gun Violence Memorial Project exhibition, co-designed with artist Hank Willis Thomas for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, finds its new home at the NBM with additional video and audio components as well as a room for quiet reflection. Here, grim statistics—700 people are killed with guns per week in the US, which is 11 times the rate of other high-income countries—take on ethereal physical embodiment in the form of four, white-painted gabled frames made of glass and wood.
Upstairs, on a more uplifting note, The Architects’ Photographer presents the work of Alan Karchmer, part of his promised gift to the NBM, in a show that combines his professional and personal photography. Part of his facility with capturing buildings comes from his training as an architect, but he adds even more value to the architecture with his ability to humanize it. “From the beginning of my work, I was concerned with including people in photographs and showing how buildings are used. When I was starting out, it was still the era when buildings were photographed primarily without people, as objects. But even back then, I just thought it was appropriate to put people in the images.”
The National Building Museum reopens Friday, April 9, 2021 with limited hours and admission.
The second room of the new visitor center. Photo © Deane Madsen