A fresh look at $2B plan to update Smithsonian

Architecture firm BIG – presented a revised proposal for the Smithsonian Campus Master Plan in Washington, DC. The vision was first unveiled in 2014 and has since been redeveloped following years of public comment and close collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution.

The new proposal reflects the team’s commitment to preserving the intimate character of the treasured Haupt Garden, while addressing existing and future needs, at one of the most historically significant areas and cultural institutions in the nation’s capital.

BIG’s $2 billion proposal – which involves lifting up two corners of the Enid A Haupt Garden and create entrances to an underground concourse connecting the campus’ museums – was revised following years of public consultation.

Members of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), local decision makers, residents and garden enthusiasts listened intently when Bjarke Ingels and representatives of the Smithsonian Institution gave a detailed account of the revised plans for the $2 billion restoration and revitalization of the South Mall Campus.

“Since our last proposal, we’ve been listening very closely to the public,” said BIG founder Bjarke Ingels.  “We wanted the general feeling and fondness for the Haupt Garden to remain the same while also increasing its enjoyment and use, offering educational elements and after hour programs.” 

The firm’s masterplan involves upgrading facilities, access and links across the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus, which includes a collection of museums that run along the southern side of the National Mall and front Independence Avenue.

These include the historic Smithsonian Castle, the Arthur M Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art – all arranged around the Haupt Garden and joined by a concourse buried beneath.

BIG’s plans include an expanded visitor centre and new education space, which will be accessible from the Mall via descending walkways, and the reconfiguration of the entrance pavilions to the African Art Museum and the Sackler Gallery.

Ingels continues about the garden, “we also want to make more accessible some of the hidden treasures underneath the Haupt Garden – the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery – which are so well hidden that they’re under-enjoyed compared to the value they represent. If we can make them more accessible, more people might be tempted to explore.”

New visuals demonstrate the team’s intention to preserve the peaceful nature of the Haupt Garden and its diverse landscape, while also serving the wider needs of DC and the growing Southwest Ecodistrict community.

The revised proposal received a number of reactions following the presentation, and while some of the previous concerns have been addressed, the general sentiment remains that there is more work to be done. Pascal D. Pittman, AIA, Director of Quality Assurance at the engineering firm Setty & Associates later commented: “I got the impression that BIG finds itself between conflicting interests which remain to be reconciled. I thought the presentation, based on the parameters that BIG described, provided for a very elegant solution.”

Another reaction came from Robert Young, AIA, Associate Principal at Grimshaw and long-time DC resident and architect, who submitted a public comment: “[the Smithsonian’s founding donor] James Smithson’s call for ‘an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’ is noble and grand, yet, like our beloved Mall, has not been able to fulfill its goals as it – and the population it serves – continually grows and changes.

As the great facilities of the Smithsonian have fallen into disrepair or reach the end of their expected lives, and the great possibilities of the ‘Mall to Museum’ connection have frayed, it is the visionary response by the Smithsonian leadership and BIG that will allow a continued dialogue between our fundamental rights as citizens and our aspirations as humans. The work of BIG is bold, expressive, and often radically new: yet those characteristics are supported by thoughtful research, sympathetic engagement and conceptual synthesis.”

BIG’s new Master Plan seeks to improve existing facilities by proposing an expanded Visitor Center and new Education Space, accessible via descending entryways oriented towards the Mall; create clear connections, access points and visibility between the museums and gardens by reconfiguring the entrance pavilions to the African Art Museum and the Sackler Gallery; and to replace aging building mechanical systems that have reached the end of their lifespan, including structural reinforcements of the Castle to withstand potential seismic activity.

The first stage of the plan, the renovation of the Castle, is expected to begin in 2021.

About Smithsonian Institution
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. There are 6,500 Smithsonian employees and 6,300 volunteers. There were 30 million visits to the Smithsonian in 2013. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 155 million, including more than 145 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History.

About BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group
BIG is a Copenhagen, New York and London based group of architects, designers, urbanists, landscape professionals, interior and product designers, researchers and inventors. The office is currently involved in a large number of projects throughout Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East. BIG’s architecture emerges out of a careful analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes. A pragmatic utopian architecture that steers clear of the petrifying pragmatism of boring boxes and the naïve utopian ideas of digital formalism. Like a form of programmatic alchemy, we create architecture by mixing conventional ingredients such as living, leisure, working, parking and shopping. By hitting the fertile overlap between pragmatic and utopia, we once again find the freedom to change the surface of our planet, to better fit contemporary life forms.

Smithsonian South Mall Campus Master Plan Facts 

SIZE: 123,000 m2
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.
CLIENT: Smithsonian Institution
COLLABORATORS: SurfaceDesign, Robert Silman Associates, GHT Limited, EHT Traceries, Stantec, Atelier Ten, VJ Associates, Wiles Mensch, GHD, FDS Design Studio, Kleinfelder

Partners in Charge: Bjarke Ingels, Thomas Christoffersen, Kai-Uwe Bergmann
Project Manager: Aran Coakley, Ziad Shehab
Project Leaders: Alvaro Velosa, Daniel Kidd, Sean Franklin
Team: Aaron Hales, Alana Goldweit, Alexandre Hamlyn, Andriani Atmadja, Annette Miller, Benjamin DiNapoli, Benjamin Novacinski, Cadence Bayley, Choonghyo Lee, Chris Falla, Daisy Zhong, Daniele Pronesti, Doug Stechschulte, Emily Chen, Gabriel Hernandez Solano, Janice Rim, Jennifer Shen, Jeremy Alain Siegel, Jihoon Hyun, Julian Andres Ocampo Salazar, Kalina Pilat, Katarzyna Starczewska, Lina Bondarenko, Mahsa Malek, Manon Otto, Martin Voelkle, Ola Hariri, Otilia Pupezeanu, Saecheol Oh, Sara Ibrahim, Stephen Kwok, Stephen Steckel, Suemin Jeon, Tammy Teng, Taylor Fulton, Tianqi Zhang, Vincent Fulia, Wells Barber, Wesley Chiang, Zhifei Xu


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