Learn How to Survive D.C.’s New 3D Maze (or Have Fun Exploring)

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BIG Maze / National Building Museum

“Mazes are usually two-dimensional. I wanted to create a three-dimensional one,” said the always non-conventional Danish architect Bjarke Ingels at the launch of his new BIG Maze at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. For those who are big fans of getting lost in tight, enclosed spaces, this experience will be a true joy. For those who aren’t, gird yourself for an anxiety-riddled time, relieved only by the sight of the laughing security guard at the exit.

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BIG Maze / National Building Museum

Ingels told us the 18-feet-high exterior walls create the sense that “you are entering a crack in a canyon,” a place out of the American Southwest. As you try to navigate the 60-feet square monochromatic box, the wall height slowly falls, revealing the center, which is in the “valley.” He spoke of this sequence with children in mind. “When kids find the center, they are rewarded with a complete overview of the whole maze.”

In one of his poetic moments, Ingels also said the maze puts into physical form one of the famous quotes by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As such, the path going in was purposefully designed to be difficult. Once you find the center, getting out is much simpler.

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View from the center / National Building Museum

While its existentialism is clearly bona fide, Ingels confided, “we didn’t know whether this would be fun or not.” BIG’s approach is a departure from the typical maze, which is as puzzling to get out of as it is to get into. (And, new fun fact: mazes are defined as mental puzzles, while labyrinths are meant to be contemplative, meditative spaces that force the “body into a state where we can achieve spiritual peace,” writes NBM).

When I asked Ingels whether his purpose was to induce anxiety in the visitors and this was part of his “fun,” he just smiled and said, “We don’t write the script. We create the set.”

Now a blow-by-blow account of the adventure of the maze (well, some highlights) of yours truly and new ASLA summer intern, Yoshi Silverstein:

As you enter, the smell of the maple plywood is welcoming, and the pathways, which are ADA-accessible, aren’t as tight as one would fear. The first path resulted in a dead end, and so did the second and third. You slowly realize that the maze is forcing you the long way around, creating a circle around the center.

As you breath a sigh of relief when the path to the center finally comes into view, you realize others are having a good time. Some demented visitors were smiling, and the few kids we saw were running through, laughing and loving it.

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Visitors enjoying the maze / National Building Museum
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Small mazer / National Building Museum

I was one who made a bee-line to the center as fast as possible, then took time to explore a little before getting lost once again. During one tense moment, I was saved by a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while, and we proceeded to chat for at least 20 minutes…in the maze. A part of me thought, can’t we talk somewhere else?

A few questions that came to me: will it work when it’s packed with people? Will you then follow your own path or others? It was relatively empty when I went through.

Yoshi clearly had a different experience:

We were trying to reach the center of this maze. Preferably, for Jared, as quickly as possible. I was keen to explore every turn and dead end – perhaps for the same reason, as a child, I liked to read through every possible outcome in Choose Your Own Adventure novels. But Jared is my boss, and he wanted to solve the puzzle, with haste. So I followed him. As we hit our first dead end, the game was on.

Jared and I decided to attempt to find the return path to the entrance. We took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end in another quadrant. Jared was surprised. I refrained from mentioning that I knew we were going the wrong way. I think my spatial orientation skills are a bit better than his.

Jared became involved chatting with a colleague, so I took the opportunity to explore on my own. Finally, my chance to walk every path! From the middle we had seen a route leading to the farthest corner away from the middle. “Would hate to get stuck there,” he said. So obviously I set an intention to find it.

When I reached the far corner, it yielded a different sense of discovery. It felt more personal, secluded, secret. Looking up I could see the ceiling of the atrium high above me, and parts of the balconies surrounding. I felt like I was in a hidden nook within a huge space. For me, it was the maze’s most contemplative spot, the only place where I felt like I wanted to stay still rather than keep moving and exploring. My breathing deepened. I noticed how the pattern of the grain on the plywood was reminiscent of contour lines on a topographical map, and thought of the connection between exploring this three-dimensional maze and the geographical orienteering of two-dimensional maps.

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The far corner / National Building Museum

I returned to the center, where I appreciated seeing the geometry of the pathways. Before leaving, I checked that there were no other secret corners I had missed. And then I exited the Big Maze.

The maze is open until September 1. Tickets are $16 for adults and $13 for kids, and cheaper if you are a member of NBM.

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