Aerial rendering of the proposed changes to the Smithsonian's south campus.
BIG/Smithsonian Aerial rendering of the proposed changes to the Smithsonian's south campus.

The Smithsonian is getting bigger, better, and BIG. Bjarke Ingels, the maverick Dane who has married OMA's unabashed modernism with sculptural daring-do and a cartoon sensibility, has designed a $2-billion, 20-year master plan for the institution's Washington, D.C. south campus that will tie its picturesque Castle to its Hirshhorn pillbox and its Freer Gallery classical box, while opening up sunken institutions such as the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) plan for the Smithsonian follows a current trend in museum design to put things underground. Steven Holl, FAIA, did it at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., in 2007, and Frank Gehry, FAIA, is doing it for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The strategy makes sense on several levels. First, it preserves public open space. Second, it avoids making monuments that can make art precincts seem forbidding and inaccessible, as well as sidestepping approval processes in which authorities or neighbors might object to new buildings. Third, it lets institutions connect spaces below ground, and then pop up objects to catch light and signal the museum's presence. Finally, it makes a certain amount of sense from a sustainability standpoint to reuse the land by placing functions underneath public space and using the earth for insulation.

The trend started, as far as I can tell, with Hans Hollein's Museum Abteiberg of 1982 and the Smithsonian's own underground Sackler and National Museum of African Art wings by Jean Paul Carlhian of 1987, gained traction in 1989 with the Louvre Pyramid, and continued with buildings as diverse as the San Francisco Legion of Honor's 1995 underground space, designed by Mark Cavagnero, FAIA, and Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Holl's Nelson-Atkins addition. BIG's plan follows that recipe: it creates a central entrance area in the courtyard in front of the Castle (or, if you look at the Smithsonian complex from the National Mall, behind it). Instead of one object sticking up, Ingels is proposing curling two corners of the existing Enid A. Haupt Garden up to invite visitors in, while a waterfall will mask the Castle's newly exposed base. Once inside, Ingels' fluid, sloping forms—the kind he likes to show in films with kids skateboarding or doing parkour along the edges—take off and lead down to new education spaces, visitor services, and giant galleries for the Hirshhorn's contemporary shows.

Rendering of Sackler Gallery entrance.
BIG/Smithsonian Rendering of Sackler Gallery entrance.
Rendering of the National Museum of African Art entrance.
BIG/Smithsonian Rendering of the National Museum of African Art entrance.

The scheme appears to be an effective, dramatic, and very expensive one. It will give the Smithsonian a great deal of new real estate without trying to erect another structure on our hallowed National Mall, while also connecting the institution's disparate buildings. Something will be lost, of course: the complexity and variety of the existing public spaces will be smoothed out and made less of a picturesque antidote to the Mall's sweep. The underground collector space runs the risk of turning into the kind of art-related shopping and entertainment mall that the Louvre's entrance area—as well as the addition to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid—has become.

Much will be gained at the same time, even without considering the important, if less sexy, parts of the plan such as the Castle's extensive renovations, including seismic base isolation. Ingels' flying carpet will be sure to become a tourist attraction in itself, and the renderings make some of the new galleries look spectacular as places to explore and view art.

Rendering of the visitor center looking to the garden.
BIG/Smithsonian Rendering of the visitor center looking to the garden.

That kind of suppressed and yet snazzy spectacle is Ingels' specialty. He, and other architects who have worked to use our institutions' basements and extend them into public spaces, are showing us that building with the land rather than on top of it is an important part of how we are going to make our urban areas more sustainable and beautiful. None of this comes cheap, as shown by the price tags for this project as well as for Philadelphia's museum (which has been billed at $350 million, but that might be optimistic). To me it seems like a worthwhile investment in the foundation, both literal and figural, of our shared cultural heritage. To do so in a manner that brings the idealism of modernism's allegiance with accessibility, openness, and fluidity to bear on our monuments is an added bonus.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.