HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — The National Building Museum in Washington is dedicated as much to building, the verb, as to building, the noun. Opened in 1985, it celebrates "achievement in architecture, engineering, construction, planning, design and landscape," and is currently featuring the exceptional online exhibit, Building America.
A web-based preview of a permanent exhibition scheduled for 2004, Building America opens with an explanation of the museum's approach. (Plenty of images and visitors' ability to move at their own pace through these first pages keeps the presentation from bogging down.) Upon reaching the Index page, surfers are given the choice of exploring a series of Timelines, Essays, or a pair of Special Selections. At the bottom of the Index window, Fun For Families offers the chance to test your bridgemaking skills.
A total of 11 Timelines are available, divided into categories that reflect domestic architecture, community and corporate buildings, landscape, and building for transportation. Each of these categories opens with a bit of expository and quotes ("No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist" - William Levitt), and contains two or three timelines. (For example, "Connecting the Continent" has separate timelines for roads, bridges, and "gateways.")
An inkling of the exhibit's diversity is evident in the timeline "Domestic Icons", which includes Monticello, Frank LLoyd Wright's Falling Water, and Graceland. Bits of trivia include the fact that split-level homes were essentially created as a way of getting the family car under the family roof.
Illustrated Essays range from such basics as "A Decent Home" and the impact of the car on construction to a look at the work of Frank LLoyd Wright and "The African-American Experience and American Building." The Essays have a different style of presentation from the Timelines, and from each other, but each one still meshes with the overall feel of the site, while helping to give the Essays their own identity within the exhibit.
Finally, a pair of Special Selections offers some examples of the "Cutting Edge" of building (how about a recyclable, portable skyscraper?), and a collection of audio clips featuring such notables as Jack Kerouac and Frank Lloyd Wright. A Help section explains navigation, but the system is so elegant and straightforward, it's unlikely that you'll need any additional guidance.
This site should be used as an example in teaching Flash-based design. From the horizontal wipes of the introductory pages to the visual appeal to the interactivity of the Timelines, Building America engages the visitor from start to finish.
Of course, it helps that the design is in the service of interesting material, and many featured subjects also include links to outside sites sites that may end up taking as much time to explore as the exhibit itself. (Examples include Monticello's official homepage, and the reconstruction of Buckminster Fuller's "Dymaxion Dwelling Machine" in the Henry Ford Museum.)
All this material translates into slow downloads for dial-up access. While most of the components, such as the Timelines, load fairly quickly, getting the exhibit itself started, and accessing some larger works, like the Essays, involve a longer wait.
More surprising was the fact that loading the homepage, and any other pages of the Museum site itself, involved maddening waits (roughly three minutes per page after all the visible elements had loaded) as the server downloaded and sorted an enormous collection of Cascading Style Sheet menu items into the page. (These are the various pop-down menu headings that appear when you mouseover the site's navigation bar, and the website reloads more than 180 of these elements every time you move to a new page.)
To make matters worse, if you load Building America from the link on the Museum's navigation bar, the site launches the exhibit and reloads the already visible home page - forcing you to sit through another reload of the CSS menus in addition to the exhibit itself. So be sure to load the exhibit by clicking on the Building America logo, and not the navigation bar link.
Another alternative is to load the exhibit through this link. You'll have to disable your browser's button and address bars to make room for the content, but it will save you having to go through the Museum's home page. (As much as I dislike frames, this site offers a prime example of where frames could be used to advantage: Visitors only have to sit through a single download of the huge table of contents.)
But however you get there, Building America is worth the trip.
Building America can be found through The National Building Museum homepage, at http://www.nbm.org/.
Jim Regan is a links researcher and graphic artist who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.