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all photos: Jeff Martin

When we walk into Dupont Underground just under 48 hours before the opening of the Re-Ball RAISE/RAZE exhibition, and the first ever open-to-general-public event in the space, the East Platform is a beehive of activity, in a good way.

In one corner volunteers are assembling smaller bits of the installation, on the other end design competition winners Hou de Sousa are doing the pre-final and final tweaks.

In the middle there is a makeshift workstation where Philippa Hughes is overseeing the administrative and outward facing side of the operation is happening. And in between…. A LOT of pacing, mainly by Craig Cook, who in the last two months has gone from volunteer to de facto project manager of the effort at hand.

You can virtually hear the pieces all coming into place as Friday’s opening approaches.

Now that we are THIS close to the space actually being enjoyed by public, it is a good time to remember how long and how much it took to get it there. The space, which originally opened in 1949 but has been unused since the mid-90s, is one of those unicorn locations in Washington D.C. that seemingly everyone has heard of, many have written about, but few have actually seen, giving it an almost urban legend edge. (we can’t speak for others, but the search for “Dupont Underground” on BYT returns 10 google pages of mentions, the key one being our Hidden DC column on the space, which we highly recommend reading as a companion piece to this story -ed)

The mission to “revitalize the abandoned trolley station beneath Dupont Circle for presenting, producing, and promoting cutting-edge arts, architecture, design, and creative endeavors” is now close to eight years old, and the Dupont Underground became a registered 501c3 about three years a go. Still it was relatively slow moving (mostly due to the resources required to adapt the 75,000 sq.ft up to code) until in late 2014 when the organization signed a five year lease on the space, and the need to program within it became a priority.

Fast forward to 2015 when National Building Museum’s team was touring the space and suggested that it may be the right place for a second life of their blockbuster BEACH exhibition. It all became VERY real when hundreds of volunteers showed up and carried 1400 boxes containing 650,000 balls over to the space in a single day. The organization accounted for 4 days for the transport effort and knew that the volunteer turnout was a sign of the public’s interest in making the space active, and forged ahead.

As a next step, an international design competition for the RE-BALL was announced, and generated close to 100 submissions from 19 countries, and Hou de Sousa’s design was declared the winner in early March. Since then it has been all systems go, all the time in order to be ready for this week’s opening.

This included 1400+ volunteers, 10,000+ volunteer hours and a schedule that truly defines “around the clock” for the core board and project team (Cook himself is on a self-admitted sabbatical from his day job as an architect, and essentially living in the space until the project is done).

The final product is playful and interactively engaging, with the visitor starting out in a a crystalline cave, which then according Hou de Sousa’s conceptforks into two windy paths. “The Southward path leads to a forest-like colonnade of twisted trunks and stumps for resting on. Beyond this grove lies a series of large spherical shells that define a meandering path while simultaneously enclosing small pockets of space. As one passes through this valley of domes, a group of scaled down buildings begins to appear; the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court Building. Conversely, if at the cave’s foyer one forks towards the North, then the visitor encounters and passes through a space of massive letters and walls of text.

The official Certificate of Occupancy was received this week and the available tickets for timed tours (all 3000+ of them) sold out in record time, though the team assures us that more will be released after this opening weekend hecticness passes.

Until then, the goals are as big as the space, with RAISE / RAZE meant to showcase what Dupont Underground can be and hopefully kick-start additional fundraising efforts (there is now officially a DONATE button on the website, USE IT). The future uses could include everything from art & design exhibitions to public arts performances to community & educational events to pop-up retail & dining to creative economy incubators and more.

We, for one, are rooting for it.