Can Bjarke Ingels’s Ambitious, 20-Year Plan Revitalize The Smithsonian?

The Danish architect faces a big challenge in bringing his eclectic style to a stodgy site.

Bjarke Ingels, who, at 40, is the architecture world’s wunderkind, has been tasked with the immense project of renovating and revitalizing the Smithsonian Institution on the south side of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The project, which could take up to 20 years and $2 billion of both public funding and private donations to complete, combines the necessary replacement of old infrastructure, such as earthquake-proofing the historic Castle, and aesthetic re-imaginings, making it easier to navigate and more accessible from the Mall. The project will be the first major renovation of the Smithsonian site in more than 100 years, and it is a serious undertaking.


In a Washington Post op-ed, one writer expressed his belief that the plan is too ambitious, and that making changes to government buildings would be so slow-moving that the results will not resemble the renderings Ingels’s company, Bjarke Ingels Group, is touting. But after his completion of the Danish Maritime Museum, which he built almost entirely underground due to its location next to Kronborg castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), he feels confident in working with sensitive sites like these in a creative way. His plan is massive and aggressive, but 20 years is also a long time, and it’s valid to at least question how smoothly he can pull this off.

Ingels considers the task a “tremendous honor and a challenge.” He’s not kidding: this is one of Ingels’s most difficult projects yet, and presents a plethora of unique problems. Washington D.C., itself, not least among them–Ingels recalls the city once described as the “most regulated piece of real estate on Earth.” This is mostly due to the legislative protections on development. For example, no building can be built higher than the top of the Capitol building. Regulators see the city as a place of historical significance to preserve, and are usually do not take kindly to those who want to interrupt that.

Ingels’s strategy with the Smithsonian is to take advantage of and expand on existing underground galleries and passageways. The new Enid A. Haupt Garden’s will have a sloping grass hill, the corners of which lift up, like the corners of a magic carpet, revealing two glass entryways to the underground galleries.

Renovating the Hirshhorn Museum, designed by legendary American architect Gordon Bunshaft (whom Ingels considers a hero), challenged Ingels to find a way to add respectfully to work he deeply admires. But any concerns he had were quickly overcome–he plans to open up space and lighting underneath the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden, which even the critical Post piece called a “simple, obvious and non-disruptive improvement to a museum that has been looking for more room.”

Another major focus of the masterplan is the restoration and retrofitting of the Castle, which Ingels plans to “put on a tray,” by building two underground levels, removing the clutter of gift shops and ticket purchasing from the space itself, and restoring the Grand Hall to its original size. The Castle was built in 1855 by architect James Renwick, Jr., and originally housed all the Smithsonian’s operations. It was restored in the ’60s, and has since been home to the institution’s Information Center, which Ingels believes wastes the majestic space. A full renovation of the space has not been undertaken in nearly 60 years, and working on it is what Ingels says excites him most about the Smithsonian project.

One of the biggest challenges will be the U.S. Department of Energy’s Forrestal Building, which blocks the Castle from view off the Mall. The masterplan includes changes to the Forrestal Building, but these could take a very long time to come to fruition if bureaucrats drag their feet on approving changes.

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