As Amtrak trains—possibly carrying Vice President Biden—rumble across overpasses in Washington, D.C., the dark passageways below yearn for a breath of new life. They are about to get just that, as Pawtucket-based Thurlow Small Architecture (TSA) has devised an interactive light installation that will turn dark roofs into planes of light in the M Street tunnel, one of four underpasses that will get such treatment in the NoMa district.
The design was developed in collaboration with Joan Almekinders and Rotterdam-based NIO architecten, and it is moving forward after winning a competition sponsored by the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) to bring better connectivity to the area. “On the NoMa BID side, there are a number of large, 10-story buildings,” explained architect Andrew Thurlow of TSA, “Once you pass through the tunnel the scale and building footprints decrease and a row-house typology emerges—the aesthetics are quite different, too. They asked us to bridge this gap by both highlighting and improving upon the existing infrastructure.”
Responding to the prompt of “light and safety,” the interactive light installation is based on the effects of rain falling, with 4,000 polycarbonate rods fixed to the top of the tunnel. Programmable LEDs blink and cascade in wave-like patterns when cars pass through. The main challenge was to make sure the light didn’t distract drivers, which was the main concern for the District Department of Transportation (DOT). The pattern will resemble a boat-like wake behind the passing vehicle, ensuring that pedestrians experience the light, but not drivers. When traffic is heavy, the pattern becomes a dim, even glow, maintaining a calm light throughout the tunnel. The relationships between pedestrians, bikes, and cars are exploited as the lights change as people pass through.
Amtrak owns the existing rail structure, and the granite walls are protected, so much of the existing structure was off limits. Working inside of these constrictions, the designers added new steel columns against the walls, and the rods were hung from a substructure that spanned the pedestrian space. The rods are cut in an implied vaulted pattern that responds to the existing structural grid, but also to the bike lanes and pedestrian paths below.
Each element is designed to give maximum effect for passersby. “We are hoping to get a soundtrack which will add another sensorial dimension, explained Thurlow, contextualizing his project, “We are going for an affectatious architecture that involves multiple senses, both visual and acoustic.”
TSA worked closely with NIO, who have considerable experience with this type of project, having recently completed similar projects in Amsterdam and Amersfoort, Netherlands. The installation will be pre-fabricated and assembled in as little as two weeks onsite. Lighting designer Maramoja in Germany is now building prototypes of the rods. The project is expected to open in the fall following permitting this summer. This is the first of four for the $2 million NoMa BID program, which will later improve the tunnels over L Street, K Street, and Florida Avenue NE.