Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

By 2040, no one living in or touring D.C.—or maybe the state of New Columbia?—is going to care much about how a federal RFP shook out back in the ’teens. But when the citizens of the future visit the National Mall, the way they experience its museums, pavilions, and landscape will be the product of decisions that were formalized earlier this month.

When the Smithsonian invited proposals to redesign the south side of the National Mall back in 2012, it received more than 30 bids, including design entries from some of the most storied and prestigious architecture firms in the world. From that group, the Smithsonian narrowed down the selections to an elite shortlist of six firms, among them the Bjarke Ingels Group, the excelsior but irreverent Danish firm that released its first monograph in comic-book form and hosts its website at “big.dk.”

This is the firm that designed Amagerforbrænding, a waste-to-energy trash incinerator, in the shape of a working ski slope, so Copenhagen NIMBYs wouldn’t object to parking it downtown. (The Danes, they love their skiing.) The firm that designed the pyramidal tower going up at 57th Street and the West Side Highway in New York, a project that is “about to revamp one of New York’s basic units: the apartment building,” according to New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson. The same firm that is designing the Lego House museum, surely the dream of every architect in the world, if not every child.

So when the Smithsonian announced last year that it had given Bjarke Ingels, who also designed this summer’s BIG Maze at the National Building Museum, one of the biggest commissions in the United States, it came as a stunner. And on Nov. 13, his firm finally revealed its plans for the span of National Mall stretching from 7th to 12th streets SW and between Independence and Jefferson avenues SW, a patch of commemorative landscape that Ingels likes to describe as “the most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth.”

“[BIG] had really done their homework,” Christopher Lethbridge, architect and program manager in the Smithsonian’s Office of Planning and Program Management, told me about a year ago. “They came to us not with a solution, of course, but a discussion of those things we felt were the appropriate focus for this master plan.”

The story Lethbridge told me is not a thrilling one. Ingels and company didn’t win by the theatrics that their provocative renderings might suggest. Behind the turned-up corners of the design statement planned to replace the Enid A. Haupt Garden are sober org charts demonstrating how BIG’s team of collaborators and consultants will minimize any duplication of effort. But the backstory does help to explain the odd-couple pairing of the world’s edgiest architect and its largest cultural bureaucracy.

Lethbridge said that for the south Mall master plan, the Smithsonian, in a rare deviation from its standard contracting process, greatly expanded the list of firms it tapped for proposals. The idea was to open the Castle’s doors to imaginative new possibilities, including Danish prodigies. The scope of the master plan called for visionary thinking. “It’s the future of the Smithsonian that we’re talking about here,” Lethbridge said.

BIG is starting with the Castle, and the master plan—which is to be carried out over as many as 20 years, with a cost of at least $2 billion—is to be implemented in phases. The first phase will see the earthquake-proofing of the Castle by essentially setting it on rollers, in addition to pulling down all the office walls that have accrued over time inside what was once the Castle’s main hall. The master plan also calls for undoing some of the least-loved architectural work in D.C., specifically Jean Paul Carlhian’s Quadrangle Complex, which houses the underground Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, the National Museum of African Art, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

The design centerpiece of the renderings released so far—the grassy rhombus whose corners appear to peel away from the earth—will serve as a kind of rooftop park over a glass pavilion. That park pavilion, which will replace the Haupt Garden, will draw skylight into the Smithsonian’s subterranean gallery spaces. (Another Quad staple, Carlhian’s beloved Moongate Garden, will be retained.) Further down the Mall, BIG will also tear down the wall surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, whose landscape hasn’t seen much action since the last renovation by James Urban in 1991. It’s bound to change now, with the sculpture garden going under glass and other major alterations in the works.

One of the plan’s biggest technical overhauls segues directly into one of its major design features—a signature move by BIG, which never passes on an opportunity to turn function into form. The master plan will replace separate loading docks for the subterranean art museums with a single, primary, secure loading dock. But why build one tunnel under the Mall when you can build two? A second tunnel, built below grade but exposed to the sun by skylights, would connect the Hirshhorn and the Sackler directly.

Has the Castle lost its mind? While the details are bound to change over the next two decades, the sketches of the plan are bonkers by Smithsonian standards. But Smithsonian architect and senior planning manager Michelle Spofford told me last year that the Smithsonian’s team is directly involved in every decision that gets made—in effect, the decisions that we’re seeing today.

“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 said. “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.”

That much, I’m willing to believe. It might surprise some to know that the Smithsonian employs a team of well-regarded architects and architectural historians. But what surprises me, and maybe anyone who compares the now and later renderings for the Mall, is that the institutional designers and cutting-edge architects all came together so quickly on a plan that transforms so much.

“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,” Spofford told me well before the final designs came in. “I’m overly impressed, and I’ve worked with a lot of consultants over the years. They have just been a phenomenal team.”

In BIG’s renderings of the Mall of the future, soft electric light falls on the at-scale residents of the next generation. The challenge for any master plan is reconciling the politics of today with the needs of tomorrow, and in the first sense, BIG has succeeded: By all accounts, the Smithsonian settled on the experimental firm for its demonstrated capacity for cooperation. Whether the design will suit the Mall’s needs in 2034 is harder to say.

While that deadline seems far off, my hope is that it’s enough time to make a considered decision. What Ingels and company design today affects more than the several blocks of National Mall that is their purview: It sets the tenor for every development that happens in the future. The Bubble designed for the Hirshhorn by Diller Scofidio + Renfro was deemed too bold for some, and that addition was temporary. How do we evaluate BIG’s curving park, which at first glance looks like a piece of paper settling on the ground? So far, what’s most striking is how much is happening in the relatively small Haupt Garden; if the entire Mall were planned this way, it would be uncomfortably dense, architecturally.

Still, the BIG master plan is an achievement for design and for process. Much of BIG’s work, if it does come to be, will be to correct mistakes made by Carlhian, a Paris-born, Harvard-trained architect who famously never once ate a sandwich. There was always the worry that the Smithsonian would learn the wrong lessons from past mistakes and seek safe cover in Classical forms and traditional landscape theory. The residents of the 2030s and beyond may come to thank the Smithsonian for its courage today.

Images courtesy of  the Smithsonian