Saturday, September 1, 2012

Still Life With Robin: A Hole in 40

by Sturmvogel 66 (Wikimedia Commons)
by Peggy Robin

You have until the end of Labor Day to play mini-golf at the National Building Museum -- that's the last day for the interactive exhibition mini-golf course, which has twelve holes, each designed by a different, prominent architecture or design firm. (Go to for all the details.)

This is a decidedly mixed recommendation. Mini-golf is a fun activity for all ages; so you’d think an invitation to top architects, landscapers, and engineers to take a crack at creating a putting hole would yield a plethora of creative, colorful, challenging but fun-to-play designs.

That last quality is the one that's mostly missing. The trouble is that few, if any, of the designs actually work as mini-golf. You definitely get the feeling while playing the game that each design is determined to showcase its particular concept, whether or not it works as part of an actual game to be played by friendly competitors. And that's kind of the point, really.

The premier example of this is the hole built on the premise that every player will get a hole in one, no matter how bad the shot. It’s called “Always a Hole in One”. Then there’s the hole called "Piranesi’s Half Pipe,' which is just the opposite -- almost impossible for any mini-golfer to hit. If you don’t manage to send the ball up the sharply curved ramp at exactly the right angle and force needed to get the ball right into the hole, it rolls back to its original position and you must try again. Par for this hole is 40(!) -- but the maximum number of tries you are allowed is 6. In other words, it’s nothing but frustration, albeit with an eye-catching black-and-white graphic design on its curved “green.”

I could critique each of the twelve holes in just this way. There's one that has changing colored lights as the ball rolls down a bumpy pathway made of wooden blocks, which are supposed to represent the varied topography of the Potomac River; it's called "Confluence" by Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill, no less, and it's stunning to look at but somewhat resistant to the function of rolling a ball toward a hole. Then there's "Daedalus' Journey" by the Architecture Center of Virginia Tech, which would have you attempt to hit the ball along a convoluted and sharply curving, labyrinthine path, even though your shot won't reach the hole that way, no matter how well you putt. To have a prayer of getting the ball near the hole in less than five or six shots, you will need to ignore the artful pathways and just try to skip the ball over everything to cut straight toward the hole at the center.

However, if I continue to tell you the best strategy hole-by-hole, these descriptions may seem more like spoilers than museum notes, so I'll stop right here. I’m still recommending that you go down to the Building Museum and play the game. Just don’t expect it to be a fair test of your mini-golf skills! (If you do want a complete preview of the course, you can see photos of each hole at 

My take-away from the experience is similar to the sense that I had after visiting Fallingwater many years ago: Some architects can more easily inspire a sense of wonder than create a thing that actually does the simple thing it's supposed to do. In the case of Fallingwater, arguably the most famous and most magnificent modern private residence in America, created for the Kaufmann family by Frank Lloyd Wright, that simple thing not accomplished is creation of comfortable, year-round living space. Nothing that conflicted with Wright's overarching vision for the house (like rugs to warm the cold, bare floors) was allowed.The result is a house that was phenomenally expensive to maintain, constantly in need of repair, and usable only as a weekend retreat during the warm months of the year -- one that ceased to be used at all after 1963, when it was donated to a conservancy and turned into a museum. There's an interesting critique on the livability problems of the house here:

While I'm recommending excursions, I would urge you to go to Fallingwater. It's about a three and a half hour drive from here. And if you make a weekend trip out of it, you might want to stop off somewhere along the way at a mini-golf course, and try your skill at putting -- something you can't really do at the National Building Museum exhibition, for all its other merits.


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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