Dupont Underground: Activating Historic Spaces Through Innovative Reuse

By Priya Chhaya posted 05-02-2016 11:12


What does it mean to take an abandoned space bring it slowly back to life?

In 2014 an all-volunteer group called the Dupont Underground (DU) signed a five-year lease to revive 75,000 square feet of old trolley tunnels in Washington, DC. The tunnels first opened beneath Dupont Circle in 1948. After closing to trolley service in 1963, they would house a fallout shelter and, briefly in the 1990s, a food court before being completely shut down.

Each of the segments of Raise/Raze is made from plastic balls held together by hot glue. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Almost 10 years ago, a group began working with the city to identify a new use for the space. Today DU is looking to create a hub for cultural expression that features contemporary art and engages the community at the same time. With more indoor space than the Smithsonian's modern art gallery, the Hirshorn, the underground is sparse, with blank concrete and tile walls that extend for blocks in either direction. For Philippa Hughes, one of the DU board members, that raw feel is "part of the coolness of the space."

But projects like this don't happen overnight and the organization knew that, in order to be successful, they had to convince stakeholders of the underground's potential—and their vision started with 650,000 plastic balls.

Activating with Art

Using art to bring in audiences isn't a new idea, but it requires a strong vision and full engagement of the local community to be successful. For the DU's board, it was a vision influenced in part by two existing art spaces in England and Germany.

The first space is the Old Vic Tunnels in London, which for four years (2009–13) hosted a series of experimental music and art exhibitions. Then in 2014 the unused railway tunnels were converted into the House of Vans, an indoor skate park and arts venue owned by the American shoe and skater brand. Currently the space is hosting an annual review exhibition from Creative Review magazine, and in May 2016 it will debut a retrospective exhibition on Fiction Records. This gallery is open to the public and includes elements of popular culture—such as upcoming screenings of the popular “Star Wars” series—to attract audiences.

 Interior of the skate park at the House of Vans, London. | Credit: Antony** on Flickr via Creative Commons.

The second example, located in Berlin-Mitte, Germany, is the Boros Collection. The exhibition space, which houses a private collection, is a former bunker with over 80 rooms spanning more than 3,000 square feet across five floors. Per the collection's website, the exhibitions are multimedia "so that visitors are confronted with various overlapping sounds on each of the bunker’s five floors. The artworks on display have been installed in the rooms by the artists themselves and work with the space." Artists currently showcased in the Boros Collection, which can be toured only by private appointment, include Ai Wei Wei, Awst and Walther, and Olafur Eliasson.

 An exhibition of endless popcorn a the Boros Collection in 2014. | Credit: m.a.r.c via Flickr on Creative Commons.

Like the Dupont Underground, both of these galleries are housed in old industrial locations that have been revived to focus on multisensory, large-scale contemporary and modern art. And both successfully bring audiences into spaces that have long since lost their original function.

In that same vein, the DU board wanted to evoke the history of the space by highlighting the process of reuse in their first installation. They started by choosing the materials—specifically over 650,000 plastic balls from a summer 2015 interactive installation at the National Building Museum (NBM). That exhibition, called "The Beach," was a massive ball pit mimicking the ocean. An enormous hit, “The Beach” attracted 160,000 attendees in a two-month period.

Capitalizing on that momentum, the DU partnered with the NBM to reuse those plastic balls in a one-of-a-kind installation, the first in the abandoned trolley tunnel. In order to find the right project, the DU launched “Re-Ball!,” an international design competition.

 Volunteers Jessica Orndorff, Eric Nesbitt, Jennifer Richwine, and Allie Armitage at the Dupont Underground. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

According to the competition brief, "Re-Ball! challenge[d] entrants to create an installation re-using the 650,000+ ball-pit balls that first appeared in the Beach installation. The winning concept [would] take the medium in a new direction, one that responds to the uniqueness of the installation site. From the open, light-filled box of the National Building Museum’s Great Hall to the curving concrete volume of the Dupont Underground's east platform, Re-Ball! entries [w]ould transform the constituent materials—and the space itself—into an entirely new experience."

Artists were also informed that the space has no plumbing or HVAC and that, with only a temporary occupancy permit, only a limited number of visitors could see the exhibition at any given time. (The exhibition, which opens April 30, will accommodate that restriction—and allow for a more intimate experience—by distributing timed tickets.) The winning design came from Hou de Sousa, an architecture and design firm from New York City.

Creating Raise/Raze

Nancy Hou and Josh de Sousa building Raise/Raze. | Credit: Priya Chhaya 

Nancy Hou and Josh de Sousa are no strangers to inventive art installations. Their firm focuses on developing innovative design solutions that are both "culturally progressive and environmentally responsible," which made them a perfect fit for the “Re-Ball!” competition.

Among their previous projects is "Tied Together," a pavilion made out of aluminum pipes and strands of rope braided from 38,000 repurposed plastic bags (the amount that New York City wastes every 90 seconds). Using the same style, Hou de Sousa's concept for their winning “Re-Ball!” submission, “Raise/Raze,” is a series of modular structures constructed from lightweight building blocks. Each of the building blocks is, in turn, made from 27 plastic balls held together using hot glue and Velcro. In their project brief Hou de Sousa state that "‘Raise/Raze’ is like sand in a massive sandbox, or a real-world version of the popular video game Minecraft, which allows users to alter their surroundings with ease."

In the weeks leading up to the installation, volunteers—many of them drawn by the opportunity to experience the underground for the first time—have worked assembly-line style to glue three, then nine, and finally 27 balls together into the uniform modules. When the exhibition opens this weekend, it will consist of preset zones and worlds constructed from those blocks. Visitors will be able to rearrange them and build new worlds as they go along. And with balls to spare, there will be stations for visitors to build their own blocks, making the experience truly interactive from start to finish.

By using the balls from “The Beach,” DU was able to build on an existing familiarity and buzz around last summer’s NBM exhibition. Some volunteers jumped at a chance to participate in this project because they "went to ‘The Beach’ last year and love the idea of recycling material." However, Hou de Sousa did not aim to re-invent “The Beach.” Rather, they were excited about "finding a new purpose for a neglected and underutilized space." According to Josh de Sousa, they "have no expectations for how the audience will receive the exhibit. It's an experiment, and we can't wait to see how people will rebuild and destroy each zone as they move along."

Space as Inspiration

The Dupont Underground is on the cusp of re-invention, and “Raise/Raze” is just the beginning of how this space will be activated. Since getting the lease, DU has brought in a variety of artists working with various types of media, including digital film. David Ross, a filmmaker who has already produced a few music videos in the tunnel, says that he keeps coming back to "wrap my head around what's happening here." You can hear in the music videos below how the concrete walls in the tunnel help to magnify the sound, creating an almost ethereal tonal quality.

While the Dupont Underground project is just getting started—and has a long way to go toward building out the whole space and hiring permanent, paid staff—the potential power of this space makes it worth watching.

Re-ball: Raise/Raze opens April 30 and is already sold out. This post is part of a series of web companions for our Spring 2016 issue of Forum Journal which is available here. Read this post on Saving Places to learn more about how the community has been engaged.

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