David Adjaye’s Spyscape museum opens in New York

David Adjaye’s Spyscape museum opens in New York

Located on the first three levels of a Midtown Manhattan’s 928 8th Avenue, Adjaye Associates’ Spyscape is part museum and part interactive funhouse, showcasing the espionage world’s stories, tools and characters and offering visitor challenges that range from surveillance skills to special ops training.

Adjaye, which developed Spyscape’s architectural, exhibition, and even fixture design, worked closely with advisors like museum officials, former intelligence agency directors, and ex-hackers, creating a complex that immerses you in the mystery, intrigue, smarts, and subterfuge of spying.

The multi-level museum’s labyrinthine exhibition spaces are organized around seven spy-related themes, including encryption, surveillance, deception and hacking. Within each you meet key characters related to the subject (like Robert Hanson, a notorious mole for the KGB, and Virginia Hall, the one-legged spy who fled the Nazis over the Pyrenees), peruse artifacts (like dominoes with tools hidden inside, spy plane cameras, and code-protecting Enigma Machines from WWII), and take part in a related skill challenge (like lie detection and interrogation practice and the Special Ops laser tunnel, in which you duck and jump over laser beams to prove your dexterity.)

David Adjaye’s design for the Spyscape interior

Visitors each receive an identity band, tracking their progress, and their experience ends with a debrief, analyzing their skillset and suggesting what spy-related roles they could hold.

Until you reach that debrief you advance from room to room, inundated with visual stimuli intended to overwhelm you, intrigue you, make you feel watched, and hint at what’s to come, like cuts between floors, peeks into other galleries, translucent screens, smoked glass windows and doors, and varied lighting, ranging from flashing LEDs to traditional museum lighting. Sinister, shadowy finishes and fixtures include dark fiber cement walls, gray acoustic paneling, stainless steel kiosks, and reflective black linoleum and polished concrete floors, sometimes imbedded with LEDs.

A few galleries stand alone, like a raised timber viewing platform and the surveillance pavilion, a weathered steel drum filled with programmable surveillance technology. The museum also holds event spaces, offices, a bookstore, and, of course, a spy gift shop.

‘It’s a very different take on what a museum is,’ says Adjaye Associates’ Josh Ellman. ‘People are engaged rather than just consuming information passively.’ The firm’s kinetic, foreboding, engrossing design, and the sense that you’re being tracked, drive home the chilling point that espionage these days isn’t just limited to spies. Corporations, governments, and just about everyone else is doing it too.

‘We show how the world of espionage is all around you,’ notes Shelby Prichard, Spyscape’s US chief of staff.

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