Milton Maltz, founder of the Marlite Company, aimed at bringing to light the tradecraft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. This founded the creation of the INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM, in Washington D.C, the only public museum in the world that provides a global perspective on the profession of espionage. The privately-owned Museum, originally located in a 19th-century building in Penn Quarter, opened to the public in 2002 and relocated to the new building in 2019.
‘Being hidden’ or ‘Hiding in plain sight’, two techniques of espionage, were the guiding principles for the design of the International Spy Museum by Rogers Stirk Harbour +Partners (RSH+P). Depending upon the visitors’ angle of approach, the building either announces itself boldly with its angled red-colored steel supports or hides behind an unassuming party wall in the L’Enfant Plaza.
The new building had to address the contextual complexity of creating a landmark building that will re-energize the Plaza while being a stepping stone from the National Mall to Washington DC’s southwest waterfront. The composition and materiality of the new museum deliberately contrasted the monotone heavy buildings of its surroundings with its lightweight steel structure. To reach outwards into the 10th street, while being constrained by the parking garage beneath, the museum’s primary façade was propped back to this structural grid which gave the building its distinct leaning façade.
The most prominent features of this seven-storeyed, 130ft tall building, are its angled facades of the exhibit floors which are encased in a black box. This black box with its exhibition spaces, propped up on bright red colored columns comprises the bulk of the building. Its prominent façade angles out towards the street, creating a sheltered public space to one side.
The double-height space at the ground level houses the lobby and retail facilities, with the educational space for student and teacher workshops within the mezzanine floor. The museum’s three main exhibition areas featuring the ‘Special Exhibition’s floor, the theatre, permanent exhibition, and task-finding, the future ‘Operation Spy’ space, within floor heights up to 20ft, are above the ground floor lobby.
These two floors are connected by a metal staircase suspended along the outside of the metal-paneled façade, enclosed in a suspended glass atrium. Above the exhibition floors are the office spaces and floating above these is a white box housing the events space and crowned with a large rooftop terrace. The events box, with its steel structure, provides the museum with its 60-ft spans with full height windows arranged in a 180-degree span around the building. These facilitate a platform for observing the Capitol and the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral and the Basilica, the District Wharf, and National Harbour.
Overall Museum Design Techniques
The Museum aims at uncovering some of the less clandestine aspects of spycraft as well as those that are more covert. The permanent collection covers the complete history of espionage with more than 750 artifacts on public display, supported with historic photographs, interactive displays, films, and videos. These ideas reveal themselves in the spatial planning of the 120,000 sq. ft. building accommodating a 145-seat theatre, rooftop terrace, and top-floor event space.
The main 10th Street façade displays varying degrees of transparency and opacity drawing to mind the overarching narrative of concealment and hiding in plain sight. The design creates a series of layers that either allude to a secretive activity that occurs within the building or places that activity on the street to display. Folded Aluminium rain screens, which catch different shades of light during the day, constitute the ‘black box’ façade, giving the box an articulated appearance. Perforations on the underside of this façade give visitors a glimpse downward from the interior to the street, while at night, due to back-lighting, it hints at something special that is happening inside the museum.
Visitors arrive at the top of the black box, at the exhibition level, by an elevator, then circulate back down to Street. The special exhibition space and theatre at the lowermost level of the black box can also be the lobby and retail space on the ground floor via a monumental suspended stair that overlooks the 10th accessed by this stair, which provides for flexibility and independent entry.
The stair is encased in a pleated glass ‘veil’ façade. To create varying degrees of transparency, the form of this veil was tessellated which breaks up reflections. This was accentuated by a fritted pattern added to the southwest facing panels that aid in reducing glare and solar gain.
The stair within the veil, provides animation to the main 10th Street frontage, allowing visitors to orient themselves to take in views over Washington, a city with one of the greatest concentrations of spies in the world.
This 130,000-square-foot tall glass-and-steel museum provides different floors to generate activities and interest within the neighborhood, giving the visitors an opportunity to study and learn more than they can ever imagine.