Dupont Underground
May 3, 2016

Rolling in the Deep

Raise/Raze at The Dupont Underground

  • By: Priya Chhaya
  • Photography: Priya Chhaya

Trolley tunnel. Fallout shelter. Food court. All in the same old place.

In 1949, Washington, D.C., built 75,000 square feet of tracks and platforms for a trolley line going through its Dupont Circle neighborhood. When the trolley line was shuttered in 1962, this network of tunnels became a fallout shelter, briefly serving as a possible safe haven during the Cold War before being sealed from public view. Then in the 1990s, an attempt was made to bring this space back to life as a food court, a venture that lasted less than a year.

Three lives over fifty years that brings us to today, when this space—with the help of an all-volunteer organization called the Dupont Underground—is poised for another rebirth.

Founder Julian Hunt recalls the reaction when he first encountered the underground over a decade ago: “Residents often saw the tunnels as a problem. They would say just fill it with concrete and make it go away.”

But he (among other interested parties) saw potential. Inspired by some European projects in similarly unusual spaces, their vision was to think broadly about the future of the city and to investigate the role of architecture, design, and public space in a vibrant neighborhood. In 2014, with a five-year lease in hand, the Dupont Underground began working to activate this vacant and underused space with art, performance, and events with the hope of creating a permanent mixed use cultural destination.


Massachusetts Ave Mosaic

After the trolley in Washington was closed, the network of underground tunnels served as a shelter during the Cold War and, briefly, as a food court.

In some ways the underground tunnels are reminiscent of the Paris catacombs (minus the interred bones). With high ceilings and wide, arching hallways, there is a similar feeling of untapped rawness–something board member Philipa Hughes says drew her to the space in the first place. There’s a feeling, a sense that the Underground is a blank canvas, brimming with potential.

And so for the Dupont Underground’s first project they sought to leverage that sense of possibility with a creative art installation that engaged the community, and included an interactive element where visitors would be active agents in building and re-building the space.

The process began almost a year ago when Washingtonians flocked to the National Building Museum for its annual summer exhibition, this time called “The Beach.” The project involved an indoor ocean made up of hundreds of thousands of plastic balls, and by the time the exhibition closed it was the talk of the town. But what to do with the more than 650,000 plastic balls? Enter Dupont Underground, which launched Re-ball!, an international design competition (in partnership with the Phillips Collection and the National Building Museum) that reused the donated materials and gave them new life.

Plan for Installation at Dupont Circle

The "Beach" installation involved an enormous number of plastic balls.

The winners of the competition were Hou de Sousa, an architecture and design firm from New York. The idea behind their proposal—called Raise/Raze—was to create worlds using a re-configurable assembly block system. Once the installation opened, attendees would be able to destroy and rebuild the installation at their own whims.

For the board, this sense of creation was integral to the design. They wanted the installation to help build a sense of ownership beyond the organization, and so the Dupont Underground engaged community members at every step of the way, including using Kickstarter to help fundraise.

Since early April, the community has grown even more, as a cadre of volunteers descended upon the underground. Armed with hot glue guns and Velcro, these community members have built the reusable modules for the installation, linking one ball to three, three to six, and then assembling them into a cube. These volunteers have been drawn to the project for a variety of reasons, but most were individuals who had seen “The Beach” and appreciated the re-use aspect of the exhibition.

Volunteers Offei Adu-Darko and Emily Mantaño

Volunteers Offei Adu-Darko and Emily Mantaño building lines of plastic balls in the first station in Raise/Raze assembly line.

Megan Loucks saw volunteering as a “very democratic way to include the community. It lets us see how installations work.” In one case, a social group called The Offline Society organized a volunteer day for its members. Offline Society founder Rebecca Yarbrough said that this was an ideal event because often “people are interested in art and urban infrastructure but don’t know how to access it.” Other volunteers have been artists in their own right and see the space and the project as a way to engage with creation of art at its inception.

At the end of the day, this project is about more than just playing with hot glue guns. With Raise/Raze poised to become a success, the leaders of the Dupont Underground are bringing in artists using a variety of mediums from film shoots to music video performances as a way to continue engaging the city. With each exhibit and performance, the volunteers who are inspired by this space hope the community will see the Dupont Underground go from once-vacant old place to a creative mecca with a bright future.

You can visit Raise/Raze at the Dupont Underground through the end of May 2016. More information can be found at www.dupontunderground.com. Follow the organization on Twitter @DupontUndergrnd and Instagram @dupontunderground.

Preservation Leadership Forum: Activating Historic Spaces Through Innovative Reuse

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 Dupont Underground team, it was a vision influenced in part by two existing art spaces in England and Germany.

While her day job involves working with preservation professionals as manager for online content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

@priyastoric

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