Interactive Installation Re-Ball!: Raise/Raze

 by Brendan L. Smith

In an abandoned trolley station buried beneath Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, D.C., new worlds are being created and destroyed in a subterranean space filled with hundreds of thousands of translucent plastic balls.

An interactive art installation called Re-Ball!: Raise/Raze united architects, designers and 1,400 volunteers in the inaugural project by Dupont Underground, a nonprofit organization that has transformed the derelict trolley station into an unusual arts and cultural destination. Tickets for the entire month-long run of the installation sold out before the doors, or really a grate over the street-level subway entrance, opened April 30, but more tickets have been added before the June 1 closing.
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More than 650,000 plastic balls, enough to fill an “ocean” during a very popular installation called The Beach last summer at the National Building Museum, were packed and moved to the Dupont Underground, which hosted an international design competition with entries from 19 countries. To create the winning proposal from New York-based design studio Hou de Sousa, volunteers armed with 225 pounds of glue created almost 10,000 cubes, each containing 27 balls, that can be combined like building blocks with Velcro edges.

In the dimly lit trolley tunnel, ball cubes lining one wall cast shadows across their smooth surface onto the trolley rail tracks on the grimy floor. Further down the tunnel, columns of balls stretch from the ceiling like strange, luminous stalactites that reach toward the floor in the cavernous space.

The curving walls of an oval-shaped room descend like stair steps next to a cluster of miniature buildings that resemble a child’s bristle-block creations. The installation was divided into five “worlds,” called Text, Cave, Grove, Shell Valley, and Government Buildings. But some of those worlds have already been razed and reborn because visitors can rearrange the cubes based on their own artistic whims or desires. Recent creations have included the Lincoln Memorial and an old-school Space Invader.

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“It’s still a work in progress,” said Craig Cook, a local architect and director of arts programming for Dupont Underground. “It’s an opportunity to do something that no one has seen before in this town.”

Dupont Underground founder Julian Hunt, a local architect who previously lived in Barcelona, was inspired by public art projects in unusual spaces, including the Kunst im Tunnel, a subterranean art space squeezed between two highway tunnels along the Rhine River in Dusseldorf, Germany. After years of negotiations and wrangling, Dupont Underground obtained a five-year lease from the D.C. government for the trolley station and its tunnels and raised funds through online campaigns to renovate one section of the 75,000-square-foot space.

Built in 1949, the trolley station helped alleviate traffic around the bustling Dupont Circle, but the entire streetcar system was shuttered in the 1960s as ridership declined. The trolley station and its tunnels were abandoned except for a brief, ill-fated fast-food court called Dupont Down Under that quickly went under in the 1990s.

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Other finalists in the Re-Ball! competition included a mazelike structure patterned after the Labyrinth of Versailles, a ball-filled mesh net illuminated by moody blue light, and a collection of giant 12-foot spheres packed with balls that probably would have rolled over someone. Some of the proposed projects weren’t realistic given the time constraints and the $10,000 budget, and Dupont Underground was drawn to the interactive nature of Raise/Raze, Cook said.

Where are the balls headed for their third act? That’s still up in the air. School groups may use some balls in their own art projects, Cook said. Balls may be given away when the installation ends or sold to raise funds. Dupont Underground’s next project hasn’t been announced, but some possibilities include more art installations, pop-up restaurants or film shoots.

“We feel very optimistic that this space can put a spotlight on D.C. as an arts and cultural center,” said Dupont Underground board member Philippa Hughes.

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Author Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist and mixed-media artist in Washington, D.C.

Photos by Franz Mahr

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