The Smithsonian Has Scrapped Its $2 Billion Bjarke Ingels Redesign in Favor of a Far More Modest Overhaul

After cancelling plans to open a museum in London with the V&A, the Smithsonian is now scaling back its expansion at home in DC.

Some elements of Bjarke Ingels's $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian's south campus. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.
Some elements of Bjarke Ingels's $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian's south campus. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

The Smithsonian Institution has ditched much of a $2 billion design plan by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, which was set to be the blueprint for a major overhaul of its south campus. Unveiled in late 2014, the splashy master plan was expected to take 20 to 30 years to complete, with construction beginning this year.

The plan featured new National Mall-facing entrances for the National Museum of African Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (both housed in the underground Quadrangle building). The James Renwick-designed Castle, home to the Smithsonian visitor center, would get an underground expansion with dining facilities, retail shops, and restrooms—as well as seismic protection in the form of a shock-absorbing dish—and there would also be subterranean galleries for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

After several revisions by the Bjarke Ingels Group—including scrapping its controversial plan to eliminate the existing Enid A. Haupt Garden, which serves as the underground Quadrangle’s roof—the plan received final approval in June 2018. But the Smithsonian underwent a leadership change in 2019, when Lonnie G. Bunch III took the reins as secretary.

Now, the Smithsonian is opting for a more humble plan, focused instead on renovating the structures that already exist, including the Castle and the adjacent Arts and Industries Building. Both buildings are National Historic Landmarks; the latter has been largely closed since 2004, but underwent a $55 million exterior renovation in recent years.

Some elements of Bjarke Ingels's $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian's south campus, including a futuristic redesign for the underground Quadrangle that would have replaced the Enid A. Haupt Garden that currently serves as the building's roof, had already been jettisoned. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

Some elements of Bjarke Ingels’s $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian’s south campus. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

The institution has said that adjusting design plans was “simply the evolutionary process,” Bunch told the Washington Post, “me coming in and asking certain questions.”

There were also likely financial concerns. The Smithsonian had lost $49 million as of October due to the lockdown. It also scrapped an ambitious and costly plan to open the first overseas branch of the institution, in conjunction with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, in September.

Some elements of Bjarke Ingels's $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian's south campus, including a futuristic redesign for the underground Quadrangle that would have replaced the Enid A. Haupt Garden that currently serves as the building's roof, had already been jettisoned. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

Some elements of Bjarke Ingels’s $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian’s south campus. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

The new plan for work in DC, which will also create an underground central utility plant serving both buildings, as well as museums in the Quadrangle, is set to be unveiled tomorrow at a Zoom meeting and presented to the National Capital Planning Commission on Thursday.

Though the Smithsonian campus will not receive a dramatic facelift, there are still big expansion plans for the institution on the horizon, with Congress including approval for a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum in its recent year-end omnibus spending bill.

Bjarke Ingels's $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian's south campus would have replaced the Enid A. Haupt Garden that currently serves as the Quadrangle building's roof, but after criticism that part of the plan was revised. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

Bjarke Ingels’s $2 billion masterplan for the Smithsonian’s south campus. Rendering by Brick Visual, courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

Though efforts to found both museums have been in the works for decades, it will likely be another ten years before either institution is ready to welcome its doors. Selecting buildings sites and constructing new facilities will be a costly and time-consuming process—although there have been calls to repurpose the vacant Arts and Industries Building to house the new Latino Museum.

The two forthcoming institutions will bring the total of Smithsonian museums to 21. There are also calls for a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture.

UPDATE, 1/27/21: Representatives of the BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group clarified that thee master plan was still in place overall. “We’re delighted to see our overall vision for the campus enable these individual designs to progress in one of the most historically significant areas and cultural institutions in the nation’s capital.” Aran Coakley, the firm’s associate and project manager, told Artnet News in an email.


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