James Corner’s Icebergs Float into the National Building Museum

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

James Corner, ASLA, is passionate about climate change, but he is also passionate about fun. How can these diametrically-opposed interests be combined? Icebergs, the newest summer installation at National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. created by Corner’s firm Field Operations, aims to show us how.

Facts about these floating ice chunks, which break off from glaciers or ice shelfs, are found on giant iceberg teepees scattered throughout the installation, which visitors can walk around, through, and, in one instance, climb inside to the top. In real life, some 75 percent of icebergs’ mass is found beneath the water line. Corner’s installation clearly illustrates this, using a 20-foot-tall blue mesh ceiling to separate the vast undersea world from the surface, which can be only accessed when you climb up inside one iceberg and look out over the vista of the entire installation.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Very small icebergs — apparently their technical name is “growlers” — hang from the ceiling, and they can be appreciated both from below and when at the surface. Bean bag chairs shaped like floating ice chunks dot the floors.

Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Coupled with this subtle education on icebergs is the immersive experience, the fun factor. At the preview, Corner said: “We wanted to design an interactive environment for people that will surprise, delight, and intrigue.” Corner also wanted it to have coolness, and be “literally cool,” hence the blue mesh walls.

Climbing inside a massive iceberg sheathed in dappled blue light, visitors can enjoy a sense of discovery as they climb up to the overlook point and then find the slide, which is very fast and seems primarily designed for kids.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King

As visitors pop out the bottom of the slide, or walk around to end, they come to a shaved ice stand run by local Japanese restaurant Daikaya, which is perhaps the only literally cold aspect in this installation. The interiors of acrylic panel and wood icebergs were fairly balmy and may get even more so as they are packed with sweaty DC-ers and tourists this summer.

Corner made a point of describing the challenges of constructing Icebergs in just two weeks. To make this tight deadline, his team designed the iceberg forms to be modular, using the same-sized isosceles triangle piece, which enabled them to create icebergs 8, 16, 24, 32, and 56 feet tall. But “it was a complicated, herculean effort” accomplished by the National Building Museum’s team of carpenters.

Enjoy the icebergs and shaved ice until September 5. Admission is $10 for members and $16 for non-members, less for students. Corner has also designed a nice series of t-shirts and floaty pens.

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