D.C.'s Art Gallery in an Abandoned Streetcar Tunnel Will Finally Open

After decades of trying to put the space to good use, artists will fill the infamously dank tunnel with interactive works.

Image Hou de Sousa
Hou de Sousa

Hou de Sousa, a New York architecture studio, will open the inaugural exhibition for Dupont Underground in Washington, D.C., in April. The exhibit will be the first major test of the premise of Dupont Underground—a plan to establish a new cultural center inside a disused trolley station underneath bustling Dupont Circle. Explaining exactly what the show will be, however, requires some unpacking.

Right now, the space looks more like an abandoned storage tunnel than an architecture pavilion. Boxes, rising in stacks along the tunnel walls of Dupont Underground, house the raw materials that Hou de Sousa, a two-person firm, will use to transform the space. Many hundreds of boxes. Columns and rows of them extend deep into the underground tunnels, hugging the walls until the light ends—then running for another two city blocks in the darkness.

“It’s a little like the last scene in The Raiders of the Lost Ark—boxes and boxes and boxes,” says Craig Cook, the director of arts programming for Dupont Underground. “That is four 48-foot tractor trailer trucks’ worth of boxes.”

(Kriston Capps)

All these boxes contain what’s left of “The Beach,” an exhibit that ran at the National Building Museum last summer. For that show, Snarkitecture, another crafty two-person design studio for New York, built a ball-pit ocean in the middle of the museum. Now, Hou de Sousa will turn all these faux-ocean droplets into cubic building blocks.

“Raise/Raze,” the firm’s winning entry in the “Re-Ball” competition hosted by Dupont Underground, will see more than 500,000 plastic balls fused into more than 18,000 cubes. These 3 x 3 x 3 cubes will serve as the building blocks in a kind of live-action “Minecraft installation, where visitors and viewers will be able to assemble and re-assemble larger structures inside the subterranean tunnels.

“We wanted to create a range of different experiences as the public walks through the space,” says Jia Min Nancy Hou, one of two partners at Hou de Sousa. “We wanted to start a series of different atmospheres and conditions.”

(Hou de Sousa)

“Raise/Raze” will divide the span of Dupont Underground into a series of interactive spaces, with titles such as “Cave,” “Text,” “Grove,” and “Shell Valley,” each one describing its content. One stretch even features re-creations of the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House, and the Supreme Court Building. Within these spaces, viewers will be able to manipulate the lightweight cubes, which will be assembled using hot glue and can be affixed to one another by Velcro dots.

“We were all impressed by the clarity of Hou de Sousa's approach to making the balls the center of the project,” says Michael Kubo, an architect and curator who served on the design jury for the “Re-Ball” competition, in an email. Kubo served as an associate curator for the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014. “There's an elegant relationship between ‘The Beach’—the balls without form—and the concept of ‘Raise/Raze’—the balls with form.”

Other finalist designs in the competition included features that could not be built inside the underground space. Dupont Underground does not have a sprinkler system, which limits the kind of structures that the fire marshal will allow in the space, as well as its occupancy. Cook says that the platform’s maximum capacity at its current state is 466 people, but they plan to admit groups in waves of maybe 25 to 50 people, because the staff is so small.

Hou de Sousa’s design requires no frames, nets, or other structures, but it will take time to build. The studio’s proposal called for more than 3,000 hours of assembly time, although the architects say that they’ve whittled down the per-cube assembly time by 25 to 30 percent since the pitch stage.

“It’s a highly labor-intensive installation, but it’s cost effective, and it’s very doable with a minimum of components and actually a minimum of skill,” Cook says. “We’re going to be doing a big volunteer effort to get people to help us build the installation.”

(Kriston Capps)

While the installation might resemble “Minecraft,” the space itself looks like a scene from the latest game in the “Fallout” series. In 2014, Dupont Underground signed a five-year lease to upgrade and program the cavernous 75,000-square-foot trolley station, an effort to revitalize abandoned infrastructure not unlike the High Line in New York.

Dupont Underground workers are still cleaning out the detritus from decades of disuse: Except for a short-lived stint when it was revived as a food court, the space has stayed empty since the 1960s. While the streetcar itself has seen a limited revival in D.C., the infrastructure that once housed the old streetcar system has posed a challenge for the city.

“You don’t really ever see the endpoint of [the tunnel],” says Josh de Sousa, who teaches with Hou at the Parsons School of Design. “It’s sort of like a shopping mall, purposefully set up in a way that you can’t look all the way through it. You have to meander. [Our] focus is on the experience, rather than some daunting vanishing point way off in the distance.”

The future of Dupont Underground may depend on how visitors receive Hou de Sousa’s design—and whether Dupont Underground can repeat this magic in the future. “Raise/Raze” is scheduled to run through June 1, when the National Building Museum opens a new architectural folly: “Icebergs” by James Corner Field Operations.

“We were attracted to this competition because we saw an opportunity to do something to really engage the public,” Hou says. The success of “The Beach” was not lost on the designers, says de Sousa. “It must have been very popular with the public.”

A schematic diagram of “Raise/Raze” in Dupont Underground, alongside photos showing the 27-ball cubes plus two prototype designs, one of which was strong enough to stand on. (Hou de Sousa)

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.