Dear Mr. Horvath:
In its meeting of 22 January, the Commission of Fine Arts was pleased to hear an information presentation on the proposed master plan concerning the properties of the Smithsonian Institution on the south side of the National Mall between 7th and 12th Streets, SW. The Commission commended the ambitious vision of the plan in connecting multiple facilities and offering a bold new identity for the heart of the Smithsonian complex.
The Commission members expressed support for the concept of transforming the quadrangle formed by the Smithsonian Castle, the Freer Gallery, and the Arts and Industries Building with prominent new entrances and visible daylit connections into the two museums below—the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art. However, they commented that the conceptual precedent for the proposed design should extend beyond A. J. Downing's curvilinear landscape for the Mall, with more consideration given to the late-20th-century Enid Haupt Garden designed by Lester Collins and Sasaki Associates. Notably, both of these precedents include a combination of exotic and native plantings that is expressive of the Smithsonian's scientific work, a tradition that is not apparent in the presented vision for the quadrangle landscape. They also noted that the great conceptual and spatial unity of the Mall is strengthened by the episodic garden landscapes on either side; for the design of the landscape and architecture within the quadrangle, they recommended that the design may be more appropriately asymmetrical in responding to the particular conditions of the site.
As the central landscape and museum entrances are developed as a concept design, the Commission members recommended careful consideration of how the project's new elements interact with the existing museums. For example, they commented that the relationship to the Freer Gallery seems underdeveloped, with a mound of earth at the northwestern corner of the space; they also noted that opportunities for programming within the Arts and Industries Building—an immense historic structure of exhibition spaces which is vacant and suitable for public amenities—seems generally unaddressed in the proposal. For the entrances that would be created by the raised corners of the new central landscape structure, they cautioned that a design of symmetrical upturned corners may be too generic as a solution. They also encouraged careful study of the conditions of physical interaction with and visibility through the long arrays of skylights that serve multiple functions as barriers, walkable surfaces, and building enclosures. Understanding this proposal as a master plan, they questioned whether the actual requirements of egress, safety, and mechanical ventilation—resulting in substantial physical elements which must inevitably be expressed at the ground level—can realistically be accommodated without compromising the schematic purity of the design.
For the proposals to alter the Hirshhorn Museum, the Commission members supported the idea of enhancing the physical connections to it across the campus and underground to the sunken sculpture garden north of Jefferson Drive. However, they agreed that the enclosed character of the Hirshhorn site is a central feature of Gordon Bunshaft's design, and they recommended that the fundamental role of the walls in creating a protected landscape and setting for the museum should be retained.
The Commission of Fine Arts emphasized its support of the Smithsonian Institution's vision to improve its south campus and looks forward to the continued review of this master plan and its component building projects. As always, the staff is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Albert Horvath, Acting Secretary
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Bjärke Ingels, Bjärke Ingels Group
Ann Trowbridge, Smithsonian Institution