National Building Museum – Unbuilt Washington

Plan for the National Mall, 1901-02. Image courtesy of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The National Building Museum in Washington D.C. is a unique museum in the landscape of the United States’ Captial. The museum is dedicated to architecture and the built environment, with its collections consisting of a wide range of architectural documentation. The have a few permanent (long-term) installations, but also have several temporary (changing) exhibitions going on at one given time.

Unbuilt Washington is one of those changing exhibitions that just recently opened. I was able to see the exhibition the other week. The exhibition primarily consists of conceptual plans for the city of Washington, giving visitors a glimpse of what the city could have been through historical drawings, plans, and models of unbuilt design concepts for places such as the White House, the Library of Congress, the memorials, among others.

Proposal for the completion of the Washington Monument by Vinnie Ream Hoxie, c. 1876-78. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The exhibit primarily consisted of design plans, drawings and renderings of proposals for what are now historic landmarks of the city. Going through the exhibit, it was interesting to see what the city you were in could have been like had the decisions of the government been different.

Competition entry for the President’s House, by A.Z. (attributed to Thomas Jefferson), 1792. Courtesy Maryland Historical Society.

It was a little eerie to think that some of these proposals could have actually been the structures that are such a constant part of the landscape I live in. We sometimes think of buildings and monuments as having such a permanent presence, but in reality they were just as much a result of design by the human mind. It was definitely a different scale of design altogether.

Proposal for the Lincoln Memorial by John Russell Pope, 1912. Courtesy National Archives.

The exhibition itself was relatively simple, and the objects were hung like an art gallery with a few cases for models and other books scattered throughout the gallery. There were also some media pieces for the more contemporary design showcases that included animations and digital presentations. It was organized in categories without a specific chronological order, which made it easier I think for visitors to get a sense of how design itself as a process has changed over time.

Competition entry for the Library of Congress by Alexander R. Esty, c. 1880. Courtesy Library of Congress.

This exhibition was also particularly of interest for me because one of my friends from the same graduate program in Exhibition Design worked on it. There was a lot of work that went into the exhibition and the quality of the objects and subject matter definitely reflect it.

Preliminary proposal for the National Cultural Center (later Kennedy Center), Edward Durell Stone, 1959. Courtesy University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

In a city that is so well known for its aura and sense of permanence and stability, Unbuilt Washington gives visitors to Washington he chance to for a moment reconsider the monumental structures that create its landscape, reminding us that behind the marble facades are ideas and inspiration that were all part of a creative design process.

Unbuilt Washington is on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC until May 28, 2012.

Learn more about the exhibition.

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