NoMA Business Improvement District

The city has embraced some of its creepiest infrastructure as an opportunity for art.

Up until a few years ago, no one lived in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood that's now called NoMa. Hell, up until a few years ago, the office mid-rises and mixed residential buildings that dominate the area north of Union Station simply weren't there. But now people live there, and those people want parks.

NoMa doesn't have any. Creepy underpasses, though—NoMa's got those in spades. The spaces where the street grid passes underneath the train tracks running north from Union Station are some of the least inviting in the city. And for NoMa residents, they're unavoidable. Inspired perhaps by the magic of the High Line in New York, the NoMa Business Improvement District came to recognize its creepy infrastructure as an opportunity.

So the NoMa Parks Foundation opened a design competition for ideas about sprucing up four different underpasses (at K Street, L Street, M Street, and Florida Avenue in Northeast). The contest drew entries from 248 teams across the world; with the support of the BID and the city, the parks organization showcased finalist designs by 10 architectural teams last fall. These follies range from an interactive silhouette installation to a wall-sized zoetrope—with lots and lots of LEDs in the mix.

Now, as Aaron Wiener reports at the Washington City Paper, officials are moving forward with plans for one of the underpasses. The dark tunnel space at M Street NE is getting an installation called "Rain," the work of Thurlow Small Architecture of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and NIO of Rotterdam.

Call it the Light Rain Room. Inside the underpass, a series of polycarbonate tubes will be suspended from above. These slender tubes will feature LEDs that are supposed to simulate the experience of walking through a light shower (literally and figuratively). "The interior of the M Street underpass will look like a gentle rain with subtle moving lights," reads a NoMa statement, "and its dark ceiling will turn into a glowing field of light that moves and flows as people move through the space."

The lights are designed to follow pedestrians as they walk through the underpass (see the animated rendering below). That means the installation is a bit more like the Rain Room than actual rain.

The Rain Room, of course, is the trendy immersive installation experience that New Yorkers and tourists alike lined up to see at the Museum of Modern Art back in summer 2013. In some ways, the Rain Room truly ruined museums forever. But it's hard to ruin a dank, poorly lit underpass.

Not a fan of the Light Rain Room? There are three more underpasses to place-ify yet, meaning that the immersive LED installation array of your fancy still has a shot.

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