The $2 billion remake of the Smithsonian in DC plans to use skylights to showcase art displayed underground.

The $2 billion remake of the Smithsonian in DC plans to use skylights to showcase art displayed underground.

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

Here's a story about a mall that has nothing to do with Black Friday: It's the National Mall, the one surrounded by Smithsonian museums.

Some of those museums are as easy for tourists to spot, like the red Smithsonian Castle with its tall, elegant tower. But next to the castle are some underground museums, with entrances that are hard for visitors to find. So the Smithsonian wants to fix with that a $2 billion renovation.

A rendering of the planned remake of the Smithsonian building by Bjarke Ingels Group.

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels of Bjarke Ingels Group is the man designing that renovation, which he says is no easy task. "It was really like stepping into a mine field of restrictions," he says.

"The area around the Smithsonian is practically the most heavily regulated piece of real estate on planet Earth," Ingels explains. "You have a lot of concerns for historical preservation, you have very old and precious buildings. You have the National Mall with all of the requirements around the sort of backyard of the nation. And, of course, security."

A rendering of the planned remake of the Smithsonian building by Bjarke Ingels Group.

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

Ingels calls the National Mall a kind of history of the last 150 years of American architecture. It has everything from the fairy-tale looks of the Smithsonian Castle to the donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum. "You have this very, very eclectic sort of campus of different buildings," he says. "Our job was, in a way, to try to make the exhibitions more accessible and to make navigation of the campus more intuitive."

A rendering shows a skylit the entrance to the African Art Museum.

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

The main challenge is the Smithsonian Castle. An earthquake hit Washington in 2011, and the building, one of incredible historical value, is not built for earthquakes. Ingels had the option of reinforcing the building with steel beams, braces and all sorts of structural enhancements, but that would kind of ruin the spirit and style of the place.

So Ingels opted instead for a method called "base isolation," in which he says "basically, you put the entire castle on a tray that then sits on ... foundations that are so elastic that they can actually absorb all the energy of the earthquake without changing the architecture of the castle at all."

An aerial view of the planned remake of the Smithsonian 

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

They'll be digging underneath the building to do it, so why not add to the musuem at the same time? That's the idea behind what Ingels is creating behind the castle.

That's where the Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art are currently located, but lots of people don't know they even exist. It's easy to walk past the building, and much of the art is displayed in a labyrinth of hallways underground. So Ingels will try to lift up the ground on the edges and add skylights.

"It will open up views and daylight to enter downstairs, so when you're walking on the Mall and you're looking past the castle, you see these little peaks opening up and inviting people to sort of enter and descend and explore the exhibitions below," he says.

The plan is still just a plan, but he's hoping this is how the Mall will look one or two decades in the future.

The remake of the Smithsonian castle.

Credit:

Bjarke Ingels Group

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