Should the Smithsonian dig in?

The venerable institution's secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, would like to enlarge the Freer Gallery and put Africa on the Mall, so to speak.

Ripley and his architects propose to create half a million square feet of underground museum, administrative and parking space south of the Smithsonian Castle. Above it would be a quadrangle in the English college tradition.

"You will recall," says Ripley, "James Smithson wanted us to be 'a college of discoverers.'"

And, indeed as sketched by the noted Japanese architect Junz Yoshimura and refined by Boston architect Jean Paul Carlihan of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, the proposed garden court promises an almost intimate, academic air -- a nice change of atmosphere from the grand vastness of the Mall.

The quadrangle would be formed by the castle to the north, the Arts and Industries Building to the east, the Freer Gallery to the west and two new, small buildings flanking an entrance from Independence Avenue to the south. Between them would be the original entrance gates James Renwick designed for the castle. The gap between castle and Freer would be closed by a small pavilion -- "un pavilion de garde," Carlihan, who was trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, calls it.

Before the National Air and Space Museum was opened, this area was a messy dump of rockets, missiles and Quonset huts. Now, half of it is adorned by a lovely Victorian garden and the other half by a parking lot. The quadrangle idea would considerably enlarge the garden.

The new buildings are the symbolic iceberg tips, as it were, of a new Museum of African Art and a new Center for Eastern Art. In addition to exhibition space, three underground levels will also accommodate an education center, a rare-book library, sundry offices and 350 cars.

The Fine Arts Commission is generally happy with this $50 million idea. In other quarters, however, there is much muddled opposition.

Some quibble about the design, mostly because in their hearts they do not want to see anything built on the Mall. Others just do not want the Museum of African Art on the Mall. They want to see it downtown.

I, too, quibble a bit with the design, although I most emphatically want to see the scheme built.

In his first model, which is what the opponents saw, Carlihan brought light into the subterranean spaces with large, deep, glass-enclosed light wells. They would not have added much to the museaums. (What provides relief from air and light-conditioned museum tedium is the sky and the real world, not the landscape bottom of a pit.) And they would have badly chopped up the quadrangle grounds.

In the course of further study, Carlihan has replaced these holes with small skylights which, he says, provide just as much daylight below and can be screened by shrubbery.

The present proposal also attempts to give the architectural design of the Center for Eastern Art an Oriental, and the Museum of African Art an African flavor. It makes the place look like a second-class world's fair.

It works better for the East, because a pagoda is a strong form that you can modernize without confusing it altogether with a Chinese turnpike restaurant. It does not work at all for the African pavilion. An African adobe hut just cannot be blown up in reinforced concrete. It's just hokum.

It is going to be tough to find a form for these entrance pavilions -- and that's what they are -- that gets along with a romantic Romanesque castle (the Smithsonian), a Hugh Victorian factory (Arts and Industry) and a bland, neo-neo-Classic temple (the Freer), and at the same time has some symbolic meaning.

As Le Corbusier said, "Creation is a patient search." Carlihan, I think, is willing to keep searching if only we are patient enough to let him. Many aspects of his design -- particularly the ramp entrance to the parking garage -- are sensitive and ingenious and warrant our confidence.

The agitation to place the Museum of African Art downtown -- in some worthy old church or warehouse, I suppose -- has a flimsy emotional appeal, emotional sympathy for the residents of a predominatly black city. But symbolically and practically, it makes no sense whatsoever.

The museum is the almost single-handed work of one man, Warren M. Robbins. He says building a new African museum on the Smithsonian Quadrangle "is a marvelous idea."

"Where were all the people who now feel possessive about the museum when we were struggling to build it?" Robbins asks.

He built it in the old Frederick Douglas house on Capitol Hill, taking over one adjacent townhouse after another. Now there are no more townhouses to expand into. Besides, the museum's scholarship and reputation reached the point, two years ago, where it became the logical nucleus for a national museum of African art.

As such, the place for it is in the monumental heart of the nation's capital, with our other national museums and alongside our enlarged museum of Asian art. It is the only place which can properly symbolize the nation's recognition of Africa's culture as well as its newly independent nations.

As Robbins says, if the museum is located somewhere near the Gallery Place subway stop, as some people suggest, it will be visited only by people who seek it out, at best thousands. On the Mall, however, it will be visited by hundreds of thousands, people who had no intentions of coming. "And those are the people we want," says Robbins, who remains the museum's director.

His chief problem is space. "We need about five times as much space as we have now," he says. "And we need it soon to accomodate several important collections that we have been promised on condition that we can properly display them.

"The Smithsonian is going to build suitable museum space for the Eastern art anyway," Robbins says. "And that will have to be next to the Freer on the quadrangle. It is only logical and economical to put us along with it.

"All this talk of putting us downtown could scuttle the whole idea of a museum of African art."

So could the National Capital Planning Commission, which will consider the scheme next month. It has veto power. And it must realize that if it does not pass the present proposal in some form or another, there will be no Museum of African Art or Center of Eastern Art for another generation.

Although the Japanese and other foreign governments have already contributed funds, it will be hard enough to get money from the American government to build the Smithonian Quadrangle.

It would seem impossible to get the money to build the museums anywhere else.