LEGO-worshipping, zoo-reinventing wunderkind architect Bjarke Ingels first made his mark in Washington, D.C. this past summer with a 3,600-square-foot plywood labyrinth installed inside of the National Building Museum.

While the tourist-snaring maze was pure Ingels — thought-provoking, boundary-pushing and unapologetically fun — it was, in the end, a small-ish and ephemeral work that lasted only one season. Peanuts, as they'd say, compared to Ingels' next D.C. project which was unveiled late last week by the Smithsonian Institution and the Danish maverick's appropriately acronym-ed firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG): a $2 billion revitalization, restoration, reconstruction and “radical reinterpretation” of the Smithsonian's south campus along the National Mall.

Positioned in between the Mall and Independence Avenue SW, the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus is home to several world-class museums, galleries and gardens along with the Smithsonian Institution Building, a gothic landmark popularly known as the Castle that serves as the administrative hub and historic heart of the world's largest museum and research complex. Despite this, the Smithsonian’s presence along the South Mall — confusing to navigate and partially tucked away underground — has never been really able to compete, foot traffic wise, with the North Mall zone which is home to the prominently situated crowd-pleasers, the National Museum of Natural History and, to the west, the National Museum of American History.


BIG's Smithsonian project

First announced in March 2013 as a modest one-to-two-year project that would involve visibility-improving tweaks to the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus buildings located between Seventh Street and 12th Street SW, BIG's proposal — a proposal that aims to "resolve the contradictions between old and new, and to find freedom within the boundaries of strict regulation and historical preservation"— has morphed into a full-on facelift that will forever change how visitors interact with the storied cultural institutions that line the Nation’s Backyard. The master plan, described by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough in a press statement as a plan that will “offer open vistas, connected museums, galleries bathed in daylight, new performance venues and gardens that invite people into them," is the largest construction project to hit the National Mall in more than 100 years.

In total, 11 of the 19 galleries and museums operated by the Smithsonian are located on the National Mall.

As detailed by the Smithsonian, the basic goals of the proposal remain the same as when BIG was first announced by the Smithsonian as the project architect: “To improve and expand visitor services and education, to create clear entrances and connections between the museums and gardens, and to replace aging building mechanical systems that have reached the end of their lifespan.”

Funded through a mix of federal and private sources, the scheme impacts all seven Smithsonian venues, operational and non-operational, on the South Mall campus in a manner that, in the words of Ingels, “treads carefully, and respectfully, to enhance the quality and identity of the existing buildings.” Three Smithsonian buildings on the South Mall — the Freer Gallery of Art (1923), The Arts and Industries Building (1879) and The Castle (1855) — are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As mentioned, upgrading building systems and repairing aging infrastructure to make these older buildings more energy-efficient (the Smithsonian anticipates a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions) is a key part of the revitalization. But just as important is the plan to subtly entice visitors who would normally flock en masse to the Mall-facing museums located on the opposite side of the park.

BIG's Smithsonian project

BIG's Smithsonian project

Currently accessible by not-always-easy-to-find, gazebo-esque entry pavilions, the subterranean Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, both located directly underneath the 4-acre Enid A. Haupt Garden in the quadrangle behind the Smithsonian Castle, will get fancy new angled glass entrances visible from the Mall. Post-renovation, the Haupt Garden will be converted into a massive, skylight-ringed public lawn that curls up at its northern corners to reveal the new entrances.

“It’s almost as if the spaces underground open up and reveal themselves to the garden and to the Mall," Ingels tells Smithsonian magazine. "Where today each museum is almost like a separate entity, in the future, it’s going to be a much more open, intuitive and inviting campus to meander around."

Located on Independence Avenue SW, the above-ground Freer Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden, flanking the Smithsonian Castle on the west and east, respectively, will gain greater visibility and access from the Mall. At the Hirshhorn Museum, the donut-shaped Modernist edifice’s “incarcerating” concrete perimeter walls will be lowered and additional exhibition space for contemporary art along with an auditorium will be added below ground, underneath the adjacent sculpture garden.

Still shuttered after a $55 million renovation, the Arts and Industries Building will undergo further renovations “once decisions are made regarding its long-term use.” BIG envisions adding a public viewing platform atop the building's rotunda.

BIG's Smithsonian project

BIG's Smithsonian project

And then there’s the Castle. The decaying crown jewel of the Smithsonian Institution, the red sandstone beauty designed by James Renwick Jr. will receive the most attention with extensive restoration and preservation work that will include crucial seismic retrofitting. The Castle’s Great Hall, divvied up over the years, will be restored to its former, pre-partition grandeur.

Additionally, the Castle's existing visitor center will be replaced with a bi-level underground visitors' hub complete with gift store, restrooms and café that's linked via passageway to its subterranean neighbors: the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery and the Ripley Center. Interestingly, moving visitor amenities underground into a new complex helps the historic structure become more earthquake-resilient through an innovative seismic upgrade technique known as base-isolation.

Essentially, BIG aims to transform the Castle from a low-traffic, administrative-centric relic — I'll only go in there because I know the bathroom lines aren't long — to a user-friendly gateway to the entire Smithsonian campus.

There's a lot more info to be found over at Smithsonian magazine and at the Washington Post where architecture critic Philip Kennicott shares his assessment of the “enormously complex plan” which would commence in 2016 (major construction would follow five years after that) and continue from 10 to 20 years provided that the proposal passes through a delightful assortment of bureaucratic hoops and hurdles including review from the National Capital Planning Commission. And, of course, there’s the not-so-small issue of funding.

Any thoughts on a hotshot forty-year-old architect from Copenhagen revamping one of America’s most cherished — and as BIG points out, most heavily regulated — pieces of real estate? Have you found yourself wandering lost and confused on the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus as it is now? And what are your feelings about Ingels’ already contentious plan to essentially remove the beloved Haupt Garden to make way for oversized skylights and less obscure access points to the underground museums?

BIG's Smithsonian project plan

Via [The Smithsonian], [ArchPaper]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.