Independence Avenue, SW
Dear Mr. Horvath:
In its meeting of 18 January, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the draft master plan for the properties of the Smithsonian Institution on the south side of the National Mall between 7th and 12th Streets, SW. While expressing support for the ambitious goals of the master plan to improve the visitor experience and museum operations within this complex, the Commission did not take an action, requesting further consideration of several issues to be addressed in a future presentation.
In their discussion, the Commission members acknowledged that many of the existing conditions within this complex of highly significant historic buildings and well-loved landscapes are far from ideal, and they agreed that many aspects of the proposed alternatives would improve the museums and their grounds. In particular, they expressed general support for the intent to renovate the iconic Castle and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and they recognized the benefits of improving existing visibility, access, delivery, and building mechanical systems. However, they raised strong concerns about the exclusion of the Arts and Industries Building as a meaningful part of the master plan and about the vision proposed for the renovation of the architectural and landscape elements of the Quadrangle—finding that these issues are fundamentally linked by the problematic strategy of developing extensive underground spaces for visitor orientation, education, and support.
Regarding the Arts and Industries Building, the Commission members were consistent with their prior advice that this historic, prominent, massive, and essentially vacant structure should be included substantively in the overall vision established by the master plan. Specifically, they said that the building—offering more than 100,000 square feet at ground level, with many well-lit spaces accessible from all directions—is ideal for public uses such as visitor orientation and support. They found that this program is the ideal use for this structure instead of any potential museum, whose contemporary requirements for light and climate control would likely entail substantial underground construction to accommodate exhibit and support areas. In light of the recent major investment to renovate the building’s envelope, they requested that the Smithsonian study using the Arts and Industries Building for visitor services as an alternative to expensive new construction beneath and adjacent to the Castle—with the obvious benefit of locating these activities where they would be highly visible, at ground level, and directly accessible from Independence Avenue, adjacent museums, and the National Mall. Further, they encouraged the Smithsonian to cooperate with the National Park Service in developing a vision for a visitor center to serve the National Mall as a whole.
For the Quadrangle, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, and the entrance pavilions to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, the Commission members noted a central dilemma in determining the importance and historic significance of these Postmodern architectural and landscape elements. They accepted that a new design for the Quadrangle could be appropriate, commenting that the existing garden—a 1980s revival of a nineteenth-century aesthetic—may not be worth reconstructing if demolished to allow replacement of the roof underneath it. They raised concerns about the relocation of the entrances to the two underground museums, noting that the existing entrance pavilions—while overly large—help to define the street and the space of the Quadrangle landscape, while not encroaching on the historic Castle. They recommended further study of the entrance locations, suggesting consideration of a new design for the museum entrances on the south side of the Quadrangle.
For the design of the landscape within the Quadrangle, they criticized the design in the preferred option as being based on conflicting goals, resulting in a compromise that is neither preservation nor a good design in its own right. Rather than focusing on superficial character and simple historicism, they requested that the Smithsonian instead develop a design that honors deeper issues of the Smithsonian’s legacy and culture—such as the collection of botanical specimens, the aesthetic tradition of the Gardenesque, and the advancement of scientific knowledge. They suggested that a new garden design could address such issues as extreme weather due to climate change and the opportunity for novel ecologies, as well as demonstrate more visibly the management and support of a beautiful garden in what is essentially an entirely new landscape in a rooftop condition.
The Commission expressed appreciation for the testimony of groups whose representatives spoke in favor of the special qualities of the Haupt Garden, the significance of the Quadrangle design, and the importance of considering this master plan in relationship to the larger design of the National Mall as a civic landscape. The Commission members concluded that the general approach of this master plan, while focused only on the Smithsonian properties, is reasonably respectful of this larger, nationally significant urban space and must continue to address the needs of the visitor and resident populations. They requested the development of options to address the issues raised regarding the key opportunities of an inspiring landscape design, less intensive underground programming of public uses, and incorporating the Arts and Industries Building meaningfully into the master plan.
The Commission of Fine Arts looks forward to the review of a revised master plan that responds to its comments. As always, the staff is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Under Secretary for Finance and Administration
and Chief Financial Officer
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Bjärke Ingels, Bjärke Ingels Group
Ann Trowbridge, Smithsonian Institution
Marcel Acosta, National Capital Planning Commission
Robert Vogel, National Park Service, National Capital Region