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‘It’s not good design:’ Fine Arts Commission critical of Smithsonian’s plan

The Enid A. Haupt Garden as it exists, top, and a rendering of the new version in the Smithsonian’s proposal. (Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group)

Remember the renderings of the space-age sloping plaza that the Smithsonian introduced three years ago when it revealed its plan to remake the area around its historic administration building?

The Smithsonian wants you to forget about them.

Officials with the world’s largest museum complex and their architect, Bjarke Ingels, presented a new version of the South Mall Master Plan Thursday to the Commission of Fine Arts that emphasized the plan’s larger garden, its parterre center and the Renwick Gates along Independence Avenue. The changes are a response to continued public outcry over the potential loss of the beloved Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The Commission, one of two federal agencies charged with approving the plan, took no action and instead asked the designers to return with alternatives and more information.

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“It’s a hugely ambitious and important project and a lot of good thought has come out today,” Commission chairman Earl “Rusty” Powell III said. “Another take would be helpful.”

Unveiled in 2014 with an estimated $2 billion price tag and a 20 -to 30-year timeline, the plan focuses on 17 acres near the administration building, known as the Castle, on the southern edge of the Mall from the Freer Gallery of Art at 12th Street to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at Seventh Street. Part of the Mall Historic District, the area includes the Arts and Industries Building and the underground Quadrangle Building, which houses the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of African Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

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The project involves restoration of the Castle and the Hirshhorn, the addition of an underground visitor center with amenities including restrooms and food service, and upgraded and centralized mechanical systems. The Haupt Garden, which is the roof of the subterranean Quadrangle building, would be replaced and the building’s entrance pavilions would be moved closer to the Mall.

Commissioners listened intently as Ingels explained the major changes to the design, which has been debated for three years. He repeatedly emphasized the switch from a park-like plaza to a garden that retains “the character and feel” of the Haupt. The space still features turned up corners that make way for glass entries to the galleries below and a “moat” of skylights along its perimeter. The design no longer includes the sloping entrance to the Castle building, dramatically reduces the excavation under and around it and retains the wall surrounding the Hirshhorn.

Before his presentation, Ingels described the challenges of the project, which he said a Smithsonian official had called “the most regulated piece of real estate on Planet Earth.”

“When you are dealing with something that is like the Central Park of the United States of America, and with the Smithsonian, one of the crown jewels of American culture, people are going to be heavily opinionated,” he said. “Over the last four years we kept enriching the design. It’s a very refined planning proposal that takes into account a lot of the concerns that were voiced.”

The commissioners gave the design a mixed review, especially concerning the Smithsonian’s lack of use for the Arts and Industries Building and its decision to move the entrances to the underground museums closer to the Mall.

“It’s perplexing. There are many innovative, one might say brilliant ideas. But my principal dilemma is why build a new visitor center when you have thousands of square feet next door,” said Alex Krieger, referring to the Arts and Industries Building. “It’s sad that you’re punting on this building, including its possible use as a visitor’s center.”

Other commissioners were critical of the Smithsonian’s approach to the garden.

“This is a redesign,” said Elizabeth Meyer. “It has nothing to do with preservation and it’s not good design.”

Representatives of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, National Mall Coalition and the Garden Club of America expressed their dislike of the plan’s demolition of the garden and entrance pavilions.