Society's Cage

Architect:  SmithGroup

Owner:  Dayton Schroeter  and Julian Arrington

Location: Washington, District of Columbia

Category:   Under 5,000 square feet  (category three)

Rising on Washington’s National Mall in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Society’s Cage is a timely and essential interpretive public installation that urges society to reckon with the perils of institutional racism and white supremacy. The initial build, a grassroots initiative guided by a team led by Black designers, coincided with the 2020 March on Washington and was installed from August 28 to September 12, 2020.

The development of Society’s Cage is anchored in a process-driven design process steeped in research, data, and real-time events. The team hopes that those who experience it understand that the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not anomalies but rather the latest examples in a centuries-old pattern of unmitigated racism in the United States.

“A small project with a big impact. In a timely response to a social crisis, the project made it onto the National Mall quite fast. This project draws attention to a topic we need to discuss as a society” - Jury comment

As a physical manifestation of racism in the country, Society’s Cage focuses on four distinct areas: Black executions, death at the hands of the police, death by lynching, and mass incarceration. Greatly informed by the data uncovered by the team, the pavilion’s aesthetics are expressed as a perfect 15-foot cube and a field of 484 rusting steel bars that hang from its roof canopy. The team’s research is also presented along an apron that wraps the structure.

Its perimeter comprises two rows of full-length steel rods. Further inward, the rods begin to vary in length until they eventually reveal a void that symbolizes Black Americans’ struggle for survival. Visitors who enter can look to the ceiling where statistical data converges and is translated through varying rod lengths. At night, LEDs inside the steel rods create a constellation that adds a new dimension to the experience.

“A small project with a big impact. In a timely response to a social crisis, the project made it onto the National Mall quite fast. This project draws attention to a topic we need to discuss as a society,” said the jury. “We felt the design response was right on.”

“We felt the design response was right on.” - Jury comment

One of the most significant elements of the pavilion’s design is an 8-minute, 46-second soundscape commissioned for it. Broken into four themes that coincide with the primary research areas, the soundscape envelops visitors as they enter and make their way through. Visitors are asked to participate in a universal exercise of holding their breath, inspired by the indignities suffered by George Floyd at the hands of the police. When finished, they are encouraged to record a video and upload their reflection to social media using an installation-specific hashtag.

Conceived, designed, and built during a global pandemic and civil unrest, the project faced unprecedented challenges from the outset. However, the gravity of the subject matter, and determining a meaningful way to present it, was perhaps the most significant challenge. In doing so, the team not only provided a platform to reckon with racism in the United States but, through its data-informed process, formed a safe space for collective reflection and a path to empathy and healing.

Additional information

Architect and  General Contractor: SmithGroup  

Architect: Dayton Schroeter

Designer: Julian Arrington    

Structural Engineer: Silman        

Steel Fabricator: Gronning Design + Manufacturing        

Consultants:  Soundscape – Musicians: Raney Antoine Jr. and Lovell "U-P"  Cooper"        

Graphics: ABC Imaging Washington, DC


Bhaskar Srivastava, AIA, (Chair), dencityworks, Brooklyn, NY

Kevin Erickson, School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL

Jonah Stanford, AIA, NeedBased, Santa Fe, NM

Janeen Harrell, AIA, Janeen Harrel Architect, GREC Architects, Chicago, IL

Image credits

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Alan Karchmer/OTTO

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Alan Karchmer/OTTO

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Alan Karchmer/OTTO

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Alan Karchmer/OTTO

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