At 60,000 square feet, the stealthy new David Adjaye–designed Spyscape museum in Manhattan is of massive proportions, and, like its topic, intentionally confounding. A bit of a mysterious commission for the British-Ghanaian architect, whose portfolio includes high-profile cultural projects like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, it’s still a fitting job for his London- and New York–based firm, Adjaye Associates, which is recognized around the world for its highly flexible design approach.
The interior combines materials like dark concrete, fiber cement, and marmoleum to ingeniously twist notions of inside and outside—a clever scheme for an institution about sleuthing. Of the material choices, many of which are most commonly found on facades, Adjaye says, “It felt like an interesting way to flip the relationship of the building and city, and to create a counter-narrative to the existing glass building, which is all about transparency. Because this is a museum about spying, I was interested using design to create a dynamic interplay between the obscured and the revealed.”
The firm served as architect of record on the project, and also handled the technology-forward exhibition design, with digital elements produced by the Spyscape team. The mazelike permanent display, which combines interactive experiences with historical artifacts, is organized into seven distinct pavilions, each centered on a theme of spying—Encryption, Deception, Surveillance, Hacking, Special Ops, Intelligence, and Cyber-Warfare. Visitors use a key fob to activate different stations, which ask personality-related questions and feature quizzes, including a lie-detector test, along the way; at the end, data compiled from their interactions reveals their spying profile.
Technology isn’t usually the focal point in Adjaye’s work, but here it takes center stage. One could very fairly consider Spyscape a departure for the firm, but Adjaye sees it otherwise. “The project is a continuation of an existing inquiry,” he says, “but from a slightly different access point. My firm has always been interested in exploring the evolution of the museum and educational spaces, and in thinking through how our relationships to these types of spaces are shifting in the 21st century. The NMAAHC thought through this shift through the lens of narrative experience and identity, but of course technology is now also integral to our approach to these typologies.” He adds, “It was exciting to have this project because it allowed us to engage deeply with the interactive technologies.”
That Spyscape is just an interior—the 660-foot-tall skyscraper it’s situated in was designed by SOM and completed in 2014—is also somewhat atypical for Adjaye. Previous interior projects include Marian Goodman Gallery in London and retail shops for Ozwald Boateng, Proenza Schouler, and Roksanda Ilincic, but none has ever been done at this scale or complexity. Even Spyscape’s elevator measures 350 square feet, big enough for 40 people to ride in at once, and an LED canopy on the second floor is composed of nearly 4,000 lights. In addition to the galleries, there’s a store specializing in rare spy books, a café, and temporary exhibition and private event spaces.
Moving through the museum, it’s easy for visitors to lose track of where they are exactly. And that’s certainly the point. “I was very interested in establishing spatial relationships that spoke to the subject matter, and that could evoke a parallel emotional experience,” Adjaye says. “There is a very purposeful interplay between hidden and exposed elements. Details emerge that are not telegraphed.”