Smithsonian abandons USD2B expansion plan unveiled in 2014

Peggy McGlone

THE WASHINGTON POST – When the Smithsonian introduced a futuristic plan for the 17 acres around its iconic administration building, the National Historic Landmark known as the Castle, officials predicted it would be a game-changer that would remake the structure into a visitor gateway to the storied institution.

Six years later, a new Smithsonian administration has jettisoned the eye-popping elements of the USD2 billion design by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, opting instead for a dramatically downsized version.

Set to be presented publicly for the first time this week, the scaled-back plan focusses on the renovation and restoration of the James Renwick-designed Castle and the adjacent Arts and Industries Building(AIB), another National Historic Landmark designed by Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze.

“It’s simply the evolutionary process, me coming in and asking certain questions,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III said about the decision.

The Bjarke Ingels Group proposal was unveiled with great fanfare in late 2014 as a re-imagining of the campus on the southern edge of the National Mall, stretching from the Freer Gallery of Art at 12th Street to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at Seventh Street.

A view of the southern side of the Smithsonian Castle, whose planned expansion has been dropped for a more modest renovation. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Architect Bjarke Ingels presented his vision for the Smithsonian renovation in 2014

The splashy concept had been in development for two years, with construction expected to begin this year. Officials estimated it would take 20 to 30 years to complete its multiple phases.

The Smithsonian spent USD5.5 million on architecture and research fees associated with the project.

The downsized version – to be introduced at a meeting with community leaders and to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) – will not feature the Blade Runner-esque plaza, new Mall-facing entrances to the National Museum of African Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery, and new underground space for food, restrooms and retail.

Officials have also abandoned plans to relocate the loading dock to expand the garden behind the Castle and the seismic protection that would have placed the historic structure on a shock-absorbing dish.

Instead, the revised project calls for interior and exterior restoration of the Castle, interior and underground work on the AIB and a new central underground utility plant serving those structures and, eventually, the Freer and the underground Quadrangle building.

That structure, built in 1987, houses the Ripley Center, Sackler Gallery and African art museum. The work is expected to take at least four years; officials have yet to disclose the cost.

Bunch played down the significance of the new plan for the area, saying that he inherited the master plan when he became secretary in 2019 and that he has delegated it to Kevin Gover, acting undersecretary for museums and culture. But Bunch said the Smithsonian looks forward to working with the NCPC, an agency that he worked with during the design and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“We have to move forward in a way that works for the Smithsonian and NCPC,” he said. “When I dealt with NCPC, their comments always made me better.”

The new plan for the Castle and the AIB will be funded primarily by Congress because it focusses on essential elements, such as new windows and roof and upgraded mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

New restrooms and visitor spaces will be added to the existing structure, and many spaces that have recently been used as offices will be returned to their original state. The last major renovation of the Castle was completed in 1968.

The 2014 design was controversial from the start. Public criticism initially focussed on the loss of the beloved Enid A Haupt garden, an area many view as a quiet oasis just off the busy Mall.

Smithsonian officials tried to walk back the space-age rendering showing a hardscape plaza instead of the formal parterre garden, insisting it was not an actual design.

Many critics disliked the removal of the entrance pavilions to the African art museum and the Sackler’s Asian art gallery, while others disliked the expanded underground space and seismic protections that they worried put the 1855 Castle at risk.

Critics also complained that the plan ignored the AIB, a brick structure that opened in 1881.

Despite the completion of a USD55 million exterior renovation in 2014, the AIB has been closed since 2004 (except for a few special events). It is mentioned as a preferred site for the newly authorised National Museum of the American Latino.

After dozens of public meetings and presentations, the Smithsonian altered the plan, restoring the entry pavilions and promising the Haupt garden would be retained. NCPC approved it in 2018.

Former Smithsonian regent Robert Kogod, a developer and philanthropist who donated USD2 million to the project, said he supported the museum’s new proposal and expressed no disappointment at the demise of the more ambitious plan.

“I have no comment. I was involved in the whole process. Whatever transpired, I’m in favour of what the public good is,” Kogod said last week.

When David Skorton succeeded Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough in 2015, Skorton first focussed on the opening of the USD540 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, and then the almost USD1 billion overhaul of the National Air and Space Museum, the institution’s most popular attraction. The Air and Space revitalisation began in 2018 and will continue until 2025. The federal government made its final contribution in the recently passed budget, and museum officials have publicly announced USD91 million toward the USD250 million goal for private donations.