Major Revamp Planned for D.C.’s South Mall

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New South Mall campus plan / BIG

The new master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus, which runs from the Hirshhorn Museum all the way to the Freer Museum, is a shocker. It obliterates the existing landscape, filled with intimate nooks that invite exploration, in favor of “improved connectivity” and open plazas that extend the grand expanse of the Mall in between the buildings. While the current set-up is perhaps rightfully criticized for being difficult to navigate and uninviting in parts, with so many walls separating museum from museum, the new plan by Danish architecture and urban design firm BIG and San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm Surface Design, as well as many other collaborators, may leave visitors feeling exposed. Given full design and implementation of the $2 billion plan is expected to take more than 20 years and won’t even start for the next 5-7 years, we can expect elements of this plan will certainly change. The Smithsonian just began its public comment phase of the process.

For the past two years, the Smithsonian has invested $2.5 million in developing these plans, seemingly under the radar. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the impetus for the new plan came from all the negative public feedback about the experience at the South Mall campus. The subterranean Ripley Education Center, for example, is nearly impossible to find, as is the entrance to the Sackler Gallery. Underground, good luck getting from the Freer to the Sackler or the Ripley Center; the passages are incredibly confusing. These museums, set deep within the Mall, are dark. At night, the whole campus is devoid of light. Visitors can’t walk directly from the Hirshhorn to the Freer, but must zig and zag. As a result, Clough believed the Smithsonian needed to totally “reimagine the experience and transition the Smithsonian into the future.”

This new master plan is then meant to be a road map to guide how to get there, added Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath. “It’s fluid and provides opportunities and options for us.”

Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG, explained the key facets of the plan for a site that may be the “most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth”:

The centerpiece of the redevelopment — and the first phase the Smithsonian will tackle — is updating the Castle and protecting it from earthquakes, like the one that heavily damaged it in 2011. The entire building will be set on rollers, a system of “base isolation,” to guard against future seismic anomalies. Given “we are digging anyway,” said Ingels, a new underground interactive exhibit is planned, which will outline all the resources the Smithsonian provides. The building’s interiors, which have been broken up into shops selling knick-knacks and offices, will be reunited in a grand hall, as it once was.

As visitors exit the Castle from the rear, heading toward the Enid A. Haupt garden, visitors will discover a contemporary landscape that peels up in the corners. Each corner will be home to a bright, glass-enclosed entrance that leads visitors either down into the Sackler Gallery or the African Art Museum. Ingels said: “These will be entrances to a much bigger experience. No more hidden pavilions.”

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Visitors will also be able to go up the top of the slopes or picnic on this green roof deck.

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Given the current Haupt garden isn’t under any historical protection, it could actually find new life in this form. One architect with BIG said the team would keep Jean Paul Carlhian’s Moongate Garden, which people love, “just putting it back even better.”

The Sackler Gallery and African Art Museum will also now be viewable from the revamped garden, providing a preview of the art below. “The skylights will give people a sneak peek into the museums, making them intuitively accessible.”

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The spaces themselves will be flooded with light, an improvement everyone can appreciate.

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One reason for all the walls separating these museums from each other is that there are three separate loading docks for the museums. BIG proposes consolidating them into one loading dock and creating a subterranean road that will enable artworks to be safely transported. Paralleling this route will be underground passages, all sky-lit, that allow visitors to travel directly between the Hirshhorn to the Freer, perhaps bypassing having to have your bag checked by security again. With one dock, the walls separating the museums can then be pulled down and direct, above-ground paths can also be created cutting through all the sites, too.

BIG then proposes further exposing the museums to the expanse of the Mall, first by removing the high walls around the Hishhorn Museum, and creating a new landscape design at near-Mall level with a pattern or circles that appear to be radiating off the building. One architect from BIG said they saw the original drawings for the site, and this new concept actually returns this space to the original design intent.

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According to Skip Graffam, ASLA, a partner at OLIN, who created a tour of the existing Hirshhorn landscape, “architect Gordon Bunschaft designed the austere and minimalist building and site, which was later refined by landscape architects Lester Collins and James Urban.” Many may appreciate the understated landscape, always a welcome respite from the Mall.

The sculpture garden, which is in sore need of maintenance, will instead be similarly gutted under this new plan, replaced with a design encased in glass.

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The museum’s central fountain will also be further sunk in.

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A new subterranean space, which will also provide access to a new cafe, will enable visitors to directly connect between the museum and sculpture garden. Now, visitors have to leave the Museum go up over the road, and then go back down into the sculpture garden.

Throughout, BIG proposes major improvements to building and landscape systems, gutting all the 50-year old systems and replacing them with the most energy and water-efficient models. The proposal promotes green infrastructure, energy efficiency, as well as localized renewable energy sources. Ingels said: “Energy use will be reduced by 39 percent and carbon emissions will go down 40 percent.” At the same time, the amount of space available for the museums will increase by 30 percent. “It’s a significant upgrade.”

The changes to the landscape, however, are perhaps mis-characterized as “subtle, surgical interventions.” This is a wholesale redesign of this part of the Mall, but Ingels says his team can “recreate the romantic, meandering nature of the space, so people can get lost in the plants,” while also dramatically improving connectivity. Also important will be creating connections with the ambitious new plans for L’Enfant Plaza and Southwest Eco-District, which is expected to bring in tens of thousands more federal workers, dramatically upping the density in the area.

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Horvath said the “landscape portion of the plan is least developed. The gardens are really integral to the design.”

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