A rendering of the National Building Museum’s interactive “BIG Maze” exhibit.
This summer, visitors to the National Building Museum will be puzzled by an unprecedented installation—a massive maze that will inspire museum goers to think about space and architecture from a larger-than-life perspective. Towering 18 feet high and measuring 61 by 61 feet around, the “BIG Maze” will occupy the museum’s vast atrium and invite visitors to traverse its twists and turns, through September 1.
Designed by Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the maze—made entirely of Baltic birch plywood—alludes to ancient labyrinths, garden and hedge mazes of 17th-and 18th-century Europe, and modern American corn mazes, says BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann. “The Cretan labyrinth is the oldest known maze,” he says. “Mazes have been built with walls and rooms, with hedges, mirrors, turf, hay bales, books, paving stones of contrasting colors and designs—or even in fields of crops. All of these historical references have inspired us in designing our contemporary maze.”
Bjarke Ingels and his design team inverted the traditional design strategy to create a modern maze. As opposed to becoming more complicated toward the heart of the labyrinth, the pathway instead offers clarity and visual insights along the way, says Bergmann.
The exhibit was inspired by which was inspired by 18th-century hedge mazes, such as this one at Hampton Court Palace in England.
By the time a visitor arrives at the center, the walls will only be a few feet high—exposing the overall design as one moves deeper into the maze. “It’s as if we used a giant ice cream scoop to remove the middle. Our purpose in doing this was to peel back the layers, to help people understand the construction of the structure as they tour it,” says Cathy Frankel, vice president of exhibitions and collections. While the museum and design teams were tight-lipped on particulars of the epicenter of the mysterious maze, the “grand reveal” promises to be enlightening—“a 360-degree look at where you came from and where you’ll go,” says Bergmann.
Internationally recognized for innovation, BIG’s philosophy aligned with the goal of making the maze user-friendly. Architecture is not an elitist activity, says Bergmann, adding, “The maze allows everyone to actively become participant, purveyor, and guide on the journey through its shifting paths.”
The maze is BIG’s inaugural DC commission and the museum’s first large-scale building installation in more than 25 years. It acts as a preview for “amBIGuity,” opening in November. The exhibition will take a behind-the-scenes look at the firm’s unconventional and human centric design processes that have come to define the architecture firm since it was founded in 2005.
Part of the National Building Museum’s annual Summer Block Party, with a slate of programming, exhibitions, concerts, late nights, and a popup of Hill Country’s Backyard Barbecue on the West Lawn, the BIG Maze is on view July 4 through September 1 at the National Building Museum. 401 F St. NW, 202-272-2448