The International Spy Museum opened its doors to the public on Sunday, May 12, for the first time since closing its original location last January. The new facility, a not-so-inconspicuous design by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), is located at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C., between the National Mall and the Southwest Waterfront.

As the country’s only freestanding museum “solely dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage,” and RSHP’s first cultural building in the United States, the project had few precedents to follow. Instead, the architects blended their usual display of sophisticated engineering with tongue-in-cheek references to espionage and intrigue.

The International Spy Museum by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (Nic Lehoux/Courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)

The majority of the program, including 35,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 150-seat theater, is concealed within the “black box,” a slightly sinister-looking building clad in corrugated metal. Suspended in front the box is the “veil,” a 60-foot-tall, pleated glass curtain wall that encloses the lobby and public circulation. The black box cantilevers past this veil dramatically on one side, bringing to mind the trope of the spy peeking out from behind a newspaper to surveil the world around him.

The fritted-glass-and-perforated-metal structure was designed to “hide in plain sight,” explained the architects. It reveals just enough of its internal activity to pique the public’s curiosity, enticing crowds from the Mall to come snooping. Their hope is that the museum will play a vital role in the revitalization of L’Enfant Plaza and, in turn, the surrounding waterfront.

“It has been an absolute delight to have been involved in the design of the International Spy Museum,” said Senior Design Partner Ivan Harbour. “It is a building for the future that will bring its neighborhood to life; a celebration not only of the long-standing human activity that it showcases but also of the city around it. A landmark for 21st-century D.C.”

Related Stories