In the works for 14 years, northern Virginia's annex for the National Air and Space Museum is definitely worth the wait
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 11/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Visiting the National Air and Space Museum's new annex, which harks back to Eero Saarinen's plan for Washington Dulles International Airport right next door, you drive under a runway-approach zone, then glide up a graceful ramp to a kind of departures drop-off area. Entering this ersatz airport—complete with control-tower look-alike—you find yourself perched on a mezzanine, nose to nose with the spooky SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest airplane ever built. (It flew from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Dulles in only an hour before entering the collection of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, as the complex is officially known.)
As you gaze out at 200 air and space craft parked around the main hangar and hung at improbable angles from a kind of eternal sky, the enormous scale of the space dawns on you. To the left sit Hiroshima's B-29 Enola Gay and a Concorde, looking surprisingly teeny in its retirement home of truly impressive dimensions: 250 feet wide, 980 feet long, and 100 feet high. Or, to put it in more macho terms, the length of three football fields 10 stories high. "It's an oh-my-God space," says Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum senior associate Chet Weber, senior project architect.
The 710,000-square-foot display-storage facility comprises the main hangar, plus a separate hangar for the Space Shuttle Enterprise and other space-program artifacts. That cost $311 million so far. Pending new funding, a restoration hangar, an archive, and extra storage will bring the total area to 760,000 square feet.
HOK involvement began in 1989 with site evaluation studies for a Smithsonian satellite facility to house the bulk of the National Air and Space Museum's vast collection, only 10 percent of which can be displayed at the museum on the Mall. By the time design began in 1996, after years of political wrangling and funding problems, conservation standards had already changed. Curators demanded lower lighting levels, tighter temperature and humidity controls, and the elimination of skylights, as potentially leaky.
The time lag created other unusual circumstances, too, as specified products changed or were discontinued, necessitating another round of vendor bidding. Then, of course, construction had to be phased to match the funding stream.
HOK's final design was inspired by the parabolic-truss zeppelin hangars of the 1930's. To take advantage of the volume and maximize the floor space, planes hang from 21 trusses, providing a variety of vantage points. "The Smithsonian has a whole group of people who figure out how high and where on the trusses to make the connection points," says principal Walter Urbanek. The project manager, Urbanek is furthermore one of only three members of senior principal Bill Hellmuth's team to stay with the job from start to finish.
Catwalks and ramps, built to increase viewing options, are suspended on tension rods, so they don't bounce, and surfaced with rubber tiles to dampen footfalls. "It's perfectly safe up there, but you're not sure what's holding you up—like flight," Hellmuth says.
To prevent that annoying echo-chamber effect, HOK located the center point 13 feet below the floor line. Illumination received equal attention. Because changing the bulbs of ceiling fixtures would have required a crane, the architects opted for a light shelf beneath clerestories. Telescoping light trees roll into place as the exhibits change.
To see planes in action, landing at Dulles, visitors can go to the top of the 165-foot-tall observation tower, with its authentic control panels. The tower was going to feature a direct feed from Dulles. After 9/11, however, that was scrapped in favor of a recorded loop.
"It's amazing, the sheer number of vets who come out here on a daily basis and stay for hours," Urbanek says, watching a wheelchair-bound man talk animatedly about a Korean War–era aircraft. "It's an emotional space for them."