Inside the Hive: Paper Innovation for the Built Environment

Great ideas can begin on paper, but paper-based materials can help you realize your next big idea — or your next REALLY HUGE idea like the Hive, an innovative, interactive installation at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., that’s built of more than 2,500  wound paper tubes.

That’s right: Paper tubes are the interlocking building blocks that form three massive domed chambers, offering visitors an immersive experience that’s the latest in the museum’s annual summer series.

At first sight, the Hive seems to consume the museum’s Great Hall, the striking silver-and-pink display of modern ingenuity contrasting with the timeless appeal of the hall’s Corinthian columns and neoclassical design. The catenary domes soar high into the hall’s uppermost reaches, their arches reminiscent of the St. Louis Arch . The smallest of the three domes is 20 feet tall; a second is 27 feet high and the largest, which features an oculus more than 10 feet in diameter, tops out at more than 50 feet. According to the museum, 90 different sizes of tubes are used to construct the three domes: the shortest is 5 inches and the longest is 120 inches; the lightest tube weighs 1.3 pounds, while the heaviest weighs 118.35. The entire structure tips the scales at 72,961 pounds.

To build a catenary dome of that scale, without a supporting structure in construction, is where the innovation with paper happens. The Studio Gang, the firm that designed the Hive, looked to paper tubes that are typically used to form concrete for foundations and columns. The tubes are strong enough to hold concrete pours, but lightweight, recyclable and renewable. The Studio Gang team saw the tubes as structural elements capable of supporting large loads to create a structure that is acoustically similar to a forest clearing, reflecting some sounds off the tubes as if they were trees, while allowing some sound to pass through.

After six months of planning and testing, the Hive was constructed in three weeks at the museum and opened in early July. Visitors from all over come to explore the domes, enjoying a unique interactive and auditory experience. Once inside the domes, visitors are encouraged to play makeshift tubular instruments so they can hear how sound shifts within the walls of the structure.

Architect Jeanne Gang, founder of Style Gang and visionary of the Hive, explains the inspiration for the aural experiment in an interview with The Washington Post, recalling her visit to the museum’s Great Hall in 2003. It was then that she noticed the sound — or rather, lack thereof. In the cavernous space of the hall, Gang says, sound floated away and a person could hardly hear the voice of the person next to them. “It feels like you’re outside in the middle of a big field,” Gang told the Post.

Gang tells DCist that the domes are “ideally suited for intimate conversations and gatherings, as well as performances and acoustic experimentation. Using wound paper tubes, a common building material with unique sonic properties, and interlocking them to form a catenary dome, we create a hive for these activities, bringing people together to explore and engage the senses.”

As visitors make their way out of the domes, they can continue to engage their senses with paper as they create their own structures with interlocking paper Build It! diskettes, a hands-on activity created by Alex Gilliam, a design educator based in Philadelphia.

When the tour is over, visitors who want to learn more about the “built environment” — buildings, parks and other human-made structures — can check out a book from their library. The museum and the D.C. Public Library worked together to create reading lists for all ages that connect the library’s summer reading theme, “Build a Better World,” and the museum’s mission “to advance the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives.” The book selections are inspired by the museum’s exhibits and collections.

The Hive is open through Sept. 4. For more about the exhibit and ticketing information, visit: https://www.nbm.org/exhibition/hive/.