In less than a decade, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has been launched into architectural stardom with designs that defy basic labels and categorization. (Where exactly does a ski slope-topped power plant or a pyramid-shaped tower fit on the architectural spectrum?). The firm can perhaps best be understood through its perfectly suited acronym: BIG. What BIG does is, well, big, whether in size, ambition, or impact.
The Bjarke Ingels Group, then, is not the obvious choice to overhaul the Smithsonian Institute’s historic southern campus alongside the National Mall—the most hallowed stretch of grass in America. This fact has not been lost on Team BIG.
When Bjarke Ingels recently presented his firm’s plan at the Smithsonian’s centerpiece, its 159-year-old “Castle,” he said he was warned that he was working on what could be “the most heavily regulated piece of real estate on planet earth.”
Knowing that, Ingels explained that the basic philosophy of the firm’s approach was to “tread carefully, and respectfully, to enhance the quality and identity of the existing buildings.” The plan includes the Smithsonian Castle, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery, the Freer Gallery, the Ripley Center, the Hirshhorn Museum as well as Sculpture Garden, and the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The driving force behind the plan is to upgrade the buildings’ aging mechanical systems and increase the visitor experience across the institutions.
The master plan is focused primarily around revamping the iconic Castle. Over the years, the structure’s Great Hall has been divvied up so many times with partitions, small exhibits, and offices that the 10,000-square-foot space has been reduced to just over half that. To reopen the hall, BIG’s plan removes many of the more recent additions and places them into a new two-story space carved out beneath the building.
The below-grade space also houses a cafe, store, auditorium, and new passageways to the surrounding institutions. Underneath the public spaces is a base isolation system to protect the structure from seismic activity. (The Castle is still showing damage from the 2011 Virginia earthquake that shook parts of Washington.)
On the opposite end of the site, at the Hirshhorn Museum, the plan reconnects the arts institution with the city by simply removing its enclosing walls. Ingels said he is a huge fan of the Gordon Bunshaft–designed structure—lovingly referring to it as a “lifted doughnut”—and that it is unnecessarily “incarcerated” behind concrete walls.
The plan expands the museum underground and revamps its adjacent sculpture garden. These changes seek to increase natural light in the interior and create new, larger gallery spaces capable of accommodating larger art installations.
The most architectural piece of the plan is the overhaul of the Haupt Garden, a well kept, manicured space that dates back to 1987. It sits behind the Castle and caps parts of the National Museum of African Art, Sackler Gallery, and Ripley Center. In collaboration with San Francisco–based landscape architecture and urban planning practice Surfacedesign, BIG is removing the existing garden and replacing it with a modern, open space, two corners of which rise to form peaks nearly 30 feet high. From the south side of the site, the raised landscape frames the entrance to the Castle. From the Mall, it reveals glass entrances to the cultural venues below. The new park, and its glazed border, creates what Ingels called “a moat of skylights.” These landscape interventions do require the demolition of the institutions’ existing entry pavilions.
The Smithsonian’s South Mall Master Plan has quickly drawn lots of media attention. But the road toward the plan’s implementation will be long and filled with potholes. BIG’s design will need to make it through a labyrinth of reviews and agencies in a city infamous for dysfunction and delay. Even when—or if—it does, there is the issue of the price tag: $2 billion. The Smithsonian says this will be met through private donors and federal funds.
Initial phases of the plan could get underway in 2016, but major construction is not expected to begin until 2021. From then, it could take up to 20 years to complete, putting the completion date at some point in 2041.
With that in mind, the plan will likely evolve from its current design. Given that the implementation of BIG’s plan largely relies on a slow moving, spending-averse Congress, what ultimately gets built might not be that big after all.