If you search synonyms for underground, you get a lot of exciting results. Clandestine. Avant-garde. Subterranean. Revolutionary.
Dupont Underground’s name is fitting because this nascent nonprofit dedicated to promoting art and design is all this, plus it’s literally underground. Its home is the abandoned tunnel beneath Dupont Circle that was once part of the city’s trolley line, the precursor to today’s Metro (albeit likely with fewer instances of spontaneous combustion).
You may be totally unaware of this long forgotten space; perhaps you even walked past the sealed entrances dozens of times on your way to Kramerbooks or the Eighteenth Street Lounge, completely oblivious to the neglected caverns below. But these 75,000 square feet of deserted darkness have waited quietly beneath the thriving vigor of Dupont Circle to be rediscovered and deemed useful and valuable again. (Sort of like Tony Bennett.)
The tunnel was shuttered in 1962, when D.C.’s trolleys were taken out of commission, and the space’s attempted comeback 20 years ago with the Dupont Down Under food court turned out to be an example of what wouldn’t work.
Dupont Underground is responsible for the latest resurrection, which at this point, looks a lot more like you would expect an actual resurrection to look, complete with dirt, stains, dampness, cracks, dim lighting and a funky aroma.
If you agreed the formation of this organization and its first project is like a birth, it would currently be in the stage between when the baby emerges from the mother and is cleaned off by attending medical personnel — full of hope and promise, and a bit of gunk. But this baby likely will never be entirely spotless, because art isn’t about being all squeaky clean and fresh-smelling, it’s about truth, authenticity, life in the raw, if you will (and even if you won’t).
Indeed, Craig Cook, director of arts programming for Dupont Underground, said that although the group wants to add plumbing and HVAC to the space, their goal is for it to be clean and safe, but not whitewashed and remade.
“We intend to keep the tracks in place and intact,” he said. “It brings a level of authenticity.”
Got the Ball Rolling
Dupont Underground’s inaugural event is the inspiring and Re-Ball!, the repurposing of the 650,000 balls used in the making of the National Building Museum’s BEACH exhibit last summer. (Alas, if only Dupont Underground could have rescued the Building Museum’s previous exhibits like the maze and the mini golf course — technically more maxi than mini — so they too could have been given new life.)
Securing the deal with the building museum gave the group the momentum it needed to really take off.
“Once we got the balls,” Cook said, “Everything else just congealed around it.”
The exhibit, like the organization itself, is cool, dark, smooth and edgy. Conceived and built by Hou de Sousa, a New York-based architecture and design studio, RAISE/RAZE takes the 3-inch balls from their former free-flowing existence in the Building Museum’s great hall, and in keeping with the theme of recycling and reusing, organizes them into building blocks that can be used again and again.
“It’s about how you can repurpose infrastructure,” Cook said of the space and the exhibit. “It comes out of things that have been abandoned or demolished.”
The balls are fastened together with hot glue into 3-by-3-by-3-ball cubes, with Velcro affixed to the corners so that structures can be built, taken apart and built anew. The exhibit features walls, symmetrical structures and columns reminiscent of stalagmites and stalactites, but with more rigidly defined corners, a la Minecraft.
A space inside an area marked off with tape contains blocks that visitors are allowed to play with and make their own art out of. (The tape is green, demonstrating that you are allowed to touch what’s inside, rather than red, which would indicate that you are not allowed to touch what’s outside.)
Attendees (all adults this past rainy Saturday afternoon) delighted in stacking the bricks as high as they could before they came crashing down with a thunderous roar — no doubt aided by the acoustics — that belied their light weight.
Tickets ($15) to the exhibit, which closes June 1, are sold out, but you can still probably get in if you show up and hang around and wait for ticketholders to leave. Dupont Underground leases the space from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which limits occupancy to 49 people at a time, so every time one person leaves, someone else can come in.
Once Dupont Underground closes the doors on this project, it begins work on its next installation, a project that’s still hush-hush, but Cook says the endeavor aims to “bring the network into larger discourses and elevate our profile beyond the District.”
Re-Ball is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends, 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and for private tours by appointment Mondays and Tuesdays. Access is via stairway outside of 11 Dupont Circle. See more creations on Instagram.