There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The Washington Pigskins inched closer to realizing a dream of the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, when it was revealed earlier this month that the team’s next stadium will be designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group. The stadium has no home yet, but the team has a lot of fans who would like to see it built somewhere near them, including right here in D.C.
Football fans may not pay enough attention to contemporary architecture to realize what a big deal it is that Snyder hired Ingels. Projects designed or underway by his firm include a stack-of-boxes tower for World Trade Center 2, a pyramid-shaped apartment mid-rise, and a new campus for Google.
Architecture critics know enough about Snyder, though, and about the perils of stadium projects in general, to sound the alarm. Washington City Paper‘s Amanda Kolson Hurley wrote that Ingels risks his reputation by working with a client as odious as Snyder. The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott called the arrangement “strange” and questioned whether BIG is “motivated by naïveté or cynicism.” And at CityLab, I wrote that Ingels ought to have declined the commission.
Kennicott has taken the argument further, however. In his latest update for the Post, he questions whether Ingels is a good partner for the other big game in town: the Smithsonian Institution. “If the firm is indeed working for the [Pigskins], it makes one even more nervous about what will happen at the Smithsonian,” the critic writes. Is that fair?
Back in November 2014, the Smithsonian unveiled BIG’s first draft for its $2 billion campus renovation, a project that will occupy the National Mall for decades. At the time, Kennicott was skeptical of the design scheme, specifically questioning the firm’s intention to completely overhaul the Enid A. Haupt Garden. That’s the rhythmic American Victorian landscape framed on one side by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the other by the National Museum of African Art. (Stand in the Smithsonian Castle’s yard and you’re there.) Kennicott frowned at the landscape concept that would replace the garden: a plane of urban park with upturned edges, like a napkin falling to the earth.
“Ingels’s curly-chip architectural flourish is the sort of thing one would like to see happen someplace in Washington, but is this the right place for it?” Kennicott asks.
Maybe not—although the delightful Enid A. Haupt Garden is at present a hopelessly overlooked feature. In any event, Kennicott appears to have soured on the Ingels scheme since then. In a story dated Jan. 22, he blasts the entire enterprise. Not just Ingels’ involvement, but the broader Smithsonian master plan:
This is [sic] $2 billion enterprise that is overly ambitious and will put the institution on a desperate fundraising treadmill for decades to come. Even it gets built, it will almost inevitably corrupt the institution from the inside, empowering the money people over the scientists, scholars and curators, and entangling the organization in close and corrosive relations with large corporations and other deep-pocketed donors.
That is a sweeping condemnation—and perhaps too broad a conclusion. While the Smithsonian’s $2 billion renovation effort is gargantuan, it is not elective. The BIG design is fanciful. No surprise there: The firm’s work is rehearsed but relentlessly whimsical. Consider the firm’s Wilson School project for Rosslyn, a building that looks like a stack of Wii controllers.
But the firm wasn’t chosen to turn up the National Mall.
Back in 2013, I spoke with Christopher Lethbridge, architect and program manager for the Smithsonian’s Office of Planning and Program Management, and Michelle Spofford, architect and Smithsonian senior planning manager. Those interviews informed the City Paper story I wrote a year later, after the Smithsonian first introduced BIG’s lilting-napkin design. What the architects told me explained how these upstart Danish rock stars wound up working for the world’s largest arts bureaucracy. The Smithsonian picked BIG because they were the best firm around for a difficult infrastructure job.
Phase one of the $2 billion project is the most significant part of the campus renovation project. Working with its collaborators, BIG will earthquake-proof the Smithsonian Castle, a project whose urgency became clear after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia in 2011. BIG is opting for base isolation, a strategy that involves boring under the Castle and putting a solid plate underneath it.
So long as architects are rooting around underneath the Mall, the thinking goes, they might as well do something to improve the experience at the Quadrangle Complex, the mostly underground spaces comprising the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, the National Museum of African Art, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Hence the park space with the uplifted corners, which will admit natural light into underground galleries, among other features.
The Smithsonian didn’t pick BIG on the strength of its design concept, however. As Lethbridge and Spofford explained, the firm was able to demonstrate an exceptional organizational capacity for handling a project involving many partners working together for years. (And doing this work in tandem with the world’s largest arts bureaucracy to boot.)
Here’s how Spofford described the firm’s winning bid:
I would say that BIG has done an outstanding job and offered solutions beyond the number of solutions that we have requested within the contract. I can’t even count the iterations. I’m overly impressed, and I’ve worked with a lot of consultants over the years. They have just been a phenomenal team.
Kennicott’s concerns about BIG’s ideas for the Mall, and about the firm’s wisdom given its apparent commitment to Snyder, still stand. Certainly the description that Ingels offered about his plans for the stadium make it sound like a design meant to win over residents of the Washington region who should be critical of any stadium that Snyder tries to sell them.
But the architects at the Smithsonian are no fools. “There are a lot of very experienced people working on the Smithsonian side—architects, landscape architects, historic preservationists—and then a lot of experienced architects on the consultant side,” Spofford explained to me. “It’s not just BIG coming in and saying, ‘We want to redesign your south campus,’ then coming up with the proposal and doing it. It’s a very long process.”
There’s another reason why BIG is a good fit for D.C. It’s not going to be one that Kennicott or the NFL’s growing chorus of critics is going to like. Based on what Ingels told Kennicott about his plans for the Washington football stadium, BIG is targeting several critical flaws in urban sports facilities.
There’s no good reason why D.C. residents should let Snyder build a new stadium at the RFK site, but a majority of voters would like to see it happen anyway. Given the political reality, it would be wise to build consensus now over what critics can accept of a stadium in D.C. While the politics still favor a county stadium somewhere in Virginia, it certainly sounds like Ingels is designing a project with the disused Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site in mind.
“We have worked with our team to imagine a facility that can be active both inside and outside all year and all week — not just on a game day,” Ingels told Kennicott. “Also we have sought to distill the stadium experience—before, during and after the game—to its essential ingredients—to provide the greatest intimacy for the players and fans, and in doing so to create a more compact and efficient stadium as opposed to the colossal facilities of the past.”
The worst possible outcome may yet pass: a stadium built in the District on the taxpayer’s dime, every conceivable concession paid to Snyder, the team’s racist name and legacy intact and reform nowhere near the NFL’s agenda. Still, the Washington football team’s return to the RFK site could bring with it a progressive project, if only in terms of stadium design. If football critics must accept compromise, BIG may be the best they are going to get.
Top image via The Smithsonian