If the James Bond series hasn’t yet triggered your latent espionage techniques, the Spyscape museum in Midtown Manhattan, New York will fully plunge you deep into a unique mix of aptitudes, psychology, and spy challenges. The world-class museum performs as an unhidden global headquarters for action and mystery enthusiasts, seeking to immerse players in a secretive universe through storytelling and customized experiences. A completely multisensory environment, Spyscape triumphs in producing an interactive adventure on classified affairs.
The high-tech 60,000 square foot space is loaded with a sleek menace, an apt interpretation of the secretive ambiance by UK architecture firm Adjaye Associates, who are recognized for their highly flexible design approach. The double-height space is located within the second floor of a 38-story SOM-designed office tower. The museum’s seven galleries are dedicated to distinct themes of deception, encryption, surveillance, hacking, cyber warfare, and special ops- getting visitors wise to intelligence.
Within each space, the partially obscured circulation areas extend the exhibits into an interactive experience of the multimedia environments. The museum focuses more on real-life spies – like Edward Snowden and Virginia Hall – than fictional secret operatives, inviting visitors to test their sleuthing abilities through profile algorithms developed by experts.
The operation begins at a 350 square foot multimedia briefing elevator – one of the largest in the world – where visitors are handed unique identity bands that keep track of their score and are oriented to the Spyscape experience. They are then brought up to the exhibition level after being assigned one of eleven spy characters including a cryptologist, a hacker, or an intelligence analyst. A dramatic vaulted LED light canopy shields triangular kiosks that dot the room. The plan of the single-story museum is marked on the wall – a rat maze of circles and squares- along with histories of spies, trivia, and timelines. The artifacts on offer are handsomely displayed with engaging graphics and story-telling animations. Spyscape’s most active installation involves a tunnel where visitors thread between laser beams while trying to hit lights on a wall.
The design models the interiors of significant spy organizations primarily through its material palette of smoked glazed doors, interactive video walls, dark gray acoustic paneling, fiber cement, and black linoleum. A sense of intrigue is heightened by the lighting strategies, transparency between floors and screens designed to shift visitors’ vantage points. Working closely with advisors like museum officials, former intelligence agency directors, and ex-hackers was essential for the firm to be able to plan out this labyrinthine exhibition. A few of the galleries stand-alone like raised timber viewing platforms. The centerpiece is the Surveillance pavilion that takes the form of a weathered steel cylinder, allowing visitors inside to watch a video in 360 degrees to complete the surveillance challenge. A cafe, a book shop with over 100 rare spy books, and a gift shop brimming with spy gadgets and smart technology are among the other amenities in the museum. Multiple event spaces can host private gatherings for more than 600 guests.
Adjaye Associates’ composition inverts the conventional relationship between building and town by establishing a small town within a building, creating a counter-narrative to the existing glass building which generally depicts transparency. The design intended to create a dynamic interplay between the obscured and the revealed, evoking a parallel emotional experience to the museum.
The firm expressed its interest in exploring the evolution of the museum and educational spaces of the 21st century through a technologically-centered design, in collaboration with the Spyscape team. The perimeter curtain walls feature a playful graphic dot and pixel vinyl which obscured views to the surrounding city while doubling as a solar screen, what Adjaye refers to as “urban camouflage”.
As with any museum, the lighting design had to be flexible and adaptable. With so many rooms to get lost in, each one required its personality and therefore, lighting quality. A highly sophisticated control system was provided to accurately define how each space feels on a granular level. Throughout the museum, the lighting remains discreet and well shielded, dissolving into the enigmatic architecture. The variety of architectural volumes, spatial organization, and lighting treatment was carefully orchestrated, some spaces create intimacy with artifacts while others can become almost overwhelming in scale.
The immersive design stands to challenge the orthodox museum typology and embraces state-of-the-art technology to fuse the physical and digital worlds of spies. The psychological ride one goes on in the brilliantly composed space empowers visitors to seek the truth, form their own opinions, and question everything. The galleries pay homage to great spies of history and their stories while offering an accurate taste into their secretive and thrilling lives.
Through active engagement, Spyscape exposes visitors to what they know, but chooses to ignore, that spying exists outside of extraordinary tales and that we can use our inner espionage skills in everyday life.