Courtesy Albert Ting

FUTURES Explores the History and Prospects of Innovation

Designed by Rockwell Group, the new exhibition reopens the Smithsonian Museum’s storied Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C.

With its marble procession of monuments, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is not a place known for representing progress or innovation. But this month, visitors to the Smithsonian’s storied Arts and Industries Building (AIB) will catch glimpses of its long-hidden treasures, get a peek at the world’s future, and be immersed in Rockwell Group’s unique brand of exhibition design with FUTURES, the first show to take place in the recently renovated building since its closure in 2004. 

Working closely with AIB director Rachel Goslins, architect David Rockwell created a dramatic design that is fitting for a building with such a complex history. Completed in 1881 by architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze as the United States National Museum, it was inspired by the optimistic pavilions exhibited at the recent World’s Fair in Philadelphia. The winged building, cruciform in the Greek style and clad in polychrome brick, attracted throngs eager to view its collections of zoological, technological, musical, and historical artifacts. Yet over the course of the next century, the building itself fell into disrepair.

Rachel Goslins, the director of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building worked closely with architect David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group to design the exhibition. COURTESY FARRAH SKEIKY

This fall, after a $55 million renovation, Rockwell’s interior design, exhibition design, wayfinding, experiential graphics, and technology installations for FUTURES have helped revive the great building as part of the commemoration of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary. On view from November 20, 2021, to July 6, 2022, the exhibit showcases 150 artifacts (including speculative designs, interactive installations, and several technological inventions and experiments) in the AIB’s 32,000 square feet of newly renovated spaces. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted a hopeful exhibition,” says Goslins. “We have so much help these days imagining what could go wrong and not as much about what could go right.” 

Some objects, like Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 experimental telephone, have been commandeered from historical collections of the Smithsonian’s other 19 museums. Others are making their public debut, such as futuristic machines like Alphabet Inc.’s crop-monitoring Mineral rover and the site-specific artificial intelligence and augmented reality–based art installations by architect Suchi Reddy and artist Tamiko Thiel. 

smithsonian building
Closed for 17 years, the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building (AIB) reopened this month with FUTURES, a new exhibition designed by David Rockwell that explores innovation in art, design, and technology. The show displays novel works that include inventions such as Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 experimental telephone, speculative design projects such as Ai Hasegawa’s (Im)possible Baby, and Alphabet Inc.’s agricultural rover, Mineral. COURTESY RON BLUNT

While designing the exhibition, which included spending months in the capital studying the building, Rockwell was also completing his new book investigating the connections between theatrical design and architecture, titled Drama (Phaidon, 2021). Some conceptual overlap is appropriate. “It’s such a unique, beautiful unicorn on the Smithsonian campus,” Rockwell says. 

“It’s not a blank canvas,” adds Goslins, noting that “it has this strong 19th century personality, with 984 windows, soaring arches, and a terrazzo floor made of prehistoric granite, with fossils that are tens of millions of years old.”

None of this could be touched by Rockwell’s interventions. “We couldn’t drill into the floor or attach anything to the walls or hang anything from the ceiling,” the architect says. Instead, he and his team brought traditional World’s Fair–inspired structures into the 21st century by constructing freestanding, state-of-the-art pavilions inside each of the building’s wings. 

“We started out designing the show not in how we wanted it to look, but how we wanted to experience it emotionally,” Rockwell says. The building’s decentralized circulation route begins in the North Hall, where a diagonal series of low plinths covered in recycled newspaper allow the visitor’s mind to wander. An LED sign in the distance illuminates the title of the show, with just enough space between the E and S to allow one 

Futures exhibition rendering

to literally walk through the future. But from there, it’s up to visitors to chart their own path. “We wanted to create circulation that encourages investigation,” he says. And like progress itself, “it’s nonlinear.” 

In the South Hall’s timber-constructed Futures That Unite pavilion, projects address how people can better relate to one another for a more inclusive world. Works include a bespoke artificial limb fabricator by Baltimore start-up Danae as well as Ai Hasegawa’s (Im)possible Baby, a speculative design project aimed at sparking dialogue on emerging biotechnologies that could enable couples of any gender to have genetically related children. 

To bring such disparate ideas together, Rockwell’s team thought about rituals of gathering. The result is a pavilion featuring a flexible mix of Japanese joinery and balloon framing that is anchored with bold hues of renewable carpeting manufactured by Shaw. “We did a lot of sketch models back and forth with curators to zero in on how material could reinforce the story,” Rockwell says. 

Futures exhibition rendering
Rockwell worked closely with AIB director Rachel Goslins to fill the 19th century building’s wings with state-of-the-art pavilions—without drilling, hanging, or attaching anything to the walls or floors of the historically landmarked building. To design the pavilions, Rockwell thought about rituals of gathering and ways in which people can tap into collective humanity. The Futures That Unite pavilion explores this idea further. The timber structure was crafted using a mix of Japanese joinery and balloon framing, under which lie swaths of renewable carpet manufactured by Shaw. COURTESY ROCKWELL GROUP

The BIG-designed Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus makes its first public appearance in the West Hall’s Futures That Work pavilion, serving as one example of an equitable future where zero-emission transportation is both possible and available. 

Rockwell conceived of a set of solar voltaic PVC films that frame the pavilion like stage curtains, and objects are situated among recyclable dichroic resin vertical displays. “We created a low [self-illuminating] wall that offers a material solution,” Rockwell explains, highlighting a winding path of mycelium-brick plinths for innovations like Hypergiant’s Eos Bioreactor, which beats the carbon capture of a tree by a factor of 400. 

Futures exhibition rendering
In the West Hall, the Futures That Work pavilion proposes solutions for a healthier, more equitable world and features many innovations on view for the first time, such as the Bjarke Ingels Group–designed Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus and Hypergiant’s Eos Bioreactor. On the opposite side of the building, in the East Hall, the Futures That Inspire pavilion encourages visitors to embrace the “spirit of play” and imagine what inventions and adventures lie ahead. From video games to underwater worlds, the works point to the fact that many of the objects in the exhibition started as mere fantasies. COURTESY ROCKWELL GROUP

The East Wing’s Futures That Inspire is made of 12-by-12-inch steel wire frame cubes with integrated LEDs. “It’s all about play and adventure,” Rockwell says of the structure, part building block and part theatrical light rigging, which recalls Bell’s phone with a show of the Bell Aerospace rocket belt, better known as the jetpack, and the Bell Nexus autonomous electric taxi, better known as the flying car. “That’s something everyone’s fantasized about all their lives,” Rockwell says. 

The proof of progress seeks to create a moment, as Goslins puts it, “to hold space for people to think about the future they want and not just the future they fear.” As for the future of the AIB itself, only time will tell. When FUTURES closes next summer, AIB may close again too, or it may be folded into the recently announced National Museum of the American Latino or the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. Whatever be the building’s fate, let’s hope its optimism endures. 

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