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Can Berlin Inspire the Dupont Underground?

by Shilpi Paul

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The Dupont Underground

Berlin’s heavy history left the city with a slew of spaces that have lived through a variety of incarnations: a Nazi airport is now a massive public park, the Stasi headquarters is now a museum, and the Berlin Wall is now a public art venue.

While DC doesn’t have a similarly grave history, we do have a few underused spaces that need to be injected with life. One such space is Dupont Underground, the tunnel-like area beneath Dupont Circle and parts of Connecticut Avenue. Currently vacant, it was once a streetcar tunnel then a short-lived food court, and the unusual shape and cavern-like feel have planners perplexed as to what to do with it. Currently, an organization called The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground has the exclusive rights to plan for the redevelopment; the group is currently fundraising and brainstorming an artsy, innovative future for the space.

As part of the research, The Goethe-Institut and Provisions Library sent four fellows to walk the streets of Berlin this summer and come back with ideas for Dupont Underground. The Institut has a few events planned over the coming weeks to display the fruits of their research; UrbanTurf attended the first two last week.

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A panel discussion on Thursday evening centered around the “adaptive re-use” of spaces around DC, Berlin and New York. The High Line Park, a former elevated rail line that is now one of Manhattan’s most visited attractions, was mentioned several times as an example of extremely successful re-purposing.

“Could Dupont Underground be DC’s High Line (or low line)?” wondered panelist Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks and People.

Much of the discussion focused on places that are attractive but fairly unstructured, allowing people to trickle in and find their own uses. Tempelhof Airport, the aforementioned Nazi airport-turned-park, is basically an open, elliptical green area these days; Berliners have been using it to fly kites, have picnics, bike and even go cross-country skiing.

On Friday, the fellows — artists and researchers — talked about their experience in Berlin and renewed thoughts about Dupont Underground. They produced a few projects, like a timeline of the history of Dupont Underground and maps of Berlin and DC (currently on display at the Institut). However, the trip didn’t yield many concrete ideas: the researchers said they came back with more questions than proposals.

“Is DC ready for a ruin?” asked one of the fellows, suggesting that perhaps the space could simply be opened to the public without much tinkering.

The fellows noted that the structure creates challenges and opportunities. The lack of light makes it feel mysterious, but developers would likely have to work hard to light every shadowy corner in order for folks to feel safe. One researcher wondered how to take advantage of the unusual acoustics, which allow for both silence and an appealing echo. She recommended that singers go down into the space and belt it out, not as an event but as a research tactic that would help the planners more completely understand the area.

While perhaps not fruitful yet, the artistic, outside-the-box approach that the researchers are taking with the space is pretty exciting for DC. The city is getting more dynamic all the time; if this project is an indication of the direction that the Dupont Underground will take, it could be a sign of a new wave of ingenuity in the nation’s capital.

See other articles related to: dupont underground

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/can_berlin_inspire_the_dupont_underground/6027

8 Comments

  1. xmal said at 10:30 am on Monday September 17, 2012:

    Believe it or not, New Yorkers—-fresh off their High-Line high—-are also thinking of low lines. In their case it’s an underground terminal for trolleys that used to come over the Williamsburg Bridge:

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/855802805/lowline-an-underground-park-on-nycs-lower-east-sid

    Here’s my list of ideas for what to do with Dupont Undeground:

    - Bicycle bypass of Dupont Circle
    - Concert venue (like Bohemian Caverns)
    - First-in, last-out commuter parking garage
    - All-weather curling rink/bocce court

    I hope someone else can do better . . .

  1. Beth said at 10:53 am on Monday September 17, 2012:

    @xmal,

    Not better, I agree! I love the bocce court and concert venue ideas.

  1. anon said at 1:16 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    How about a miniature golf course?

  1. Dana Hollish Hill said at 4:01 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    As someone who was working in Dupont Circle during the food court fiasco, I recall that the main problem had to do with a very large rat population that lived in the Dupont Underground.  Has that problem been eradicated? If not, I find it hard to believe anything will be a good use for that space.

  1. xmal said at 4:24 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    Then how about a rat-racing track as both DC’s entry into low-stakes gambling (take that, National Harbor!) and Brechtian critique of workaday life.

  1. BarbyCPA said at 4:29 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    Where is the entrance and exit of this tunnel?  If you could walk straight across Dupont circle without waiting for traffic or walking the entire perimeter of the circle, great, just open it up, light it, and let people use the shortcut.  In London you can walk under the Thames to Greenwich, and from the East side to the West side midtown Manhattan.  These places are maybe not pretty but are perfectly functional.  Maybe newstands or snacks at either end?  Just do it and see what happens?

  1. jennifer said at 5:22 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    open it up to a design competition!  I would think sections of the roof could be removed if done carefully.  Are there any drawings?

  1. makeba said at 7:04 pm on Monday September 17, 2012:

    I would have to think of something and get back to you. But off the break…a ‘concert venue’ is out. Isnt this a long and narrow-like space?? What about acoustics? You would sound like you are singing in the bathroom.  Duh… ;o/

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