Two Old Dogs’ New Trick (by Eileen Doughty)

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Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard Designed by Norman Foster

From the museum’s website:

The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, with its elegant glass canopy was designed by the world-renowned architectural firm Foster + Partners, is a signature element of the renovated National Historic Landmark building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The enclosed courtyard provides a distinctive, contemporary accent to the museums’ Greek Revival building.

“The design was driven by a deep respect for the existing building,” said Foster. “It was decided that it should not touch the building at any point-floating above it instead, like a cloud over a courtyard.”

The roof, a steel structure with a glass and aluminum exterior, has a surface area of approximately 37,500 square feet. There are 864 panes of glass and no two are alike. Eight steel columns support the canopy, which weighs around 900 tons.

At 28,000 square feet, the courtyard is one of the largest public event spaces in Washington. The interior features a variety of plantings, including two 32-foot high ficus trees and 16 black olive trees which sit in white marble planters on a black granite floor. Foster + Partners worked closely with acclaimed landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson on the design of the interior which includes four of her signature water scrims.

 

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The building was originally called the Patent Office, and it is quite typical of the architecture of most federal buildings in Washington, DC. It was the third public building constructed in the new city of Washington, after the White House and the Capitol. Construction began in 1836, and the final wing was not finished until 1868. For decades it also held the government’s historical, scientific and art collections, including the Declaration of Independence; other agencies such as the Department of the Interior; a temporary barracks in the early days of the Civil War and served as a hospital and morgue after several battles. Walt Whitman tended to wounded Union soldiers here, and President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball on the third floor. In the early 1950s it was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot, but the budding historic preservation movement saved it. It became a Smithsonian property in the 1960s. It was closed from 2000-2006 for extensive renovations. The new courtyard was completed in November.

The new canopy may rest solely on columns, but you’d never know it from the viewpoint of the floor. Computers were used to design the panes. It would have taken years otherwise for the architects to figure out how to make them fit together.

The space should feel “cold” with all the neutral, almost colorless, stonework — except for the trees which make it feel like an open park. However I felt warm and quite comfortable. Perhaps the glass ceiling gives the feeling of being under a slightly rumpled quilt.

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“Scrims” were a new word to me. They are shallow areas of gently flowing water (the water comes out from one side and drains at the opposite side). These are only about 1/8-inch deep, shallower than the sole of a shoe. Besides the fun of walking through the scrims (and having dry shoes in a few steps), was just watching the patterns of reflections change over the course of a minute or two. The water flow increases and decreases in a regular rhythm, causing the reflection of the canopy to blur and then become distinct.

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There are ever-changing shadow patterns on the walls.

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And the reflection patterns on the floor are just as enjoyable.

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I wonder how many people will go barefoot in warmer weather.

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This is a welcome addition to the staid architecture of most of Washington, DC, and the courtyard certainly is a destination along with the two museums it joins. However, the architects were required to make the beautiful canopy not visible from the ground outside — what a shame.

As quilt artists, perhaps we are predisposed to appreciate this mix of traditional and contemporary.  Do you know of other places that have a notable mix of new and old architecture, in your home town or anywhere in the world? Places that look great, or flopped? Another famous example mixing wildly different architectural styles is the Louvre, in Paris.

For more pictures of the courtyard, see the museum’s slide show; it includes a view from above the roof line and night lighting.

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4 Responses to “Two Old Dogs’ New Trick (by Eileen Doughty)”


  1. 1 Olga December 3, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Norman Foster is a great favourite of mine. This roof at the Smithsonian is a version of what he did at the British Museum in London http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/britishmuseum/index.htm ; but I love the reflections in the former. That whole space looks very inviting and exciting.

    Foster made a beautiful job of joining two buildings together at the Royal Academy in London (I cannot find online pix), where he kept the exterior of the adjacent building with all its pediments etc. to be seen as one goes up in the glass lift, or climbs the glass stairs to the Sackler Gallery there.

    He also used the new/old approach with the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/reichstag/index.htm where he left the original, but build an amazing glass structure where the people can climb up to look down on their representatives at work.

    I love the idea of double structures like this. When I lived for a short time in the USA I was determined after seeing a photograph in Arizona Highways magazine to visit the Casa Grande in Arizona http://picasaweb.google.com/wstoll3/GrandCanyonArizona907/photo#5106906236108784690
    I was not disappointed. An eclectic approach like this can generate such a buzz.

  2. 2 Olga December 3, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Norman Foster is a great favourite of mine. This roof at the Smithsonian is a version of what he did at the British Museum in London http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/britishmuseum/index.htm ; but I love the reflections in the former. That whole space looks very inviting and exciting.

    Foster made a beautiful job of joining two buildings together at the Royal Academy in London (I cannot find online pix), where he kept the exterior of the adjacent building with all its pediments etc. to be seen as one goes up in the glass lift, or climbs the glass stairs to the Sackler Gallery there.

    He also used the new/old approach with the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/reichstag/index.htm where he left the original, but build an amazing glass structure where the people can climb up to look down on their representatives at work.

    I love the idea of double structures like this. When I lived for a short time in the USA I was determined after seeing a photograph in Arizona Highways magazine to visit the Casa Grande in Arizona http://picasaweb.google.com/wstoll3/GrandCanyonArizona907/photo#51069 06236108784690
    I was not disappointed. An eclectic approach like this can generate such a buzz.

  3. 3 eileen December 3, 2007 at 5:16 am

    “Pamela in Canada” replied via the SAQA list:
    “Oh what a beautiful space! These add ons can be quite exquisite (as the I.M. Pei at the Louvre and this one, or they can be a national embarrassment as in our Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I mean LOOK at this (I know I can’t!)
    http://www.rom.on.ca/crystal/index.php

    I wonder how much free-form architecture is being done now just because it CAN be done. Is it a fad? The Corcoran Museum in DC was negotiating with architect Frank Gehry a few years ago for an addition; the same sort of plan as Pamela’s example — a very classical building gets a very modern addition. However the funding didn’t come through (for various reasons), and the director was fired soon after. This article http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110006773 has a summary of that situation and also says that people may come once to see the building, but it is the *art* inside that brings them back again.

  4. 4 clairan December 2, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Eileen,

    This is gorgeous. I looked at the slide show, which answered my question. From inside I couldn’t tell if the roof/ceiling undulated or it was an effect of the curving lines of the glass panes. The think the “billowing” sensation of the non-flat ceiling (adding to its textile look) may add to the warmth and friendliness of the space.


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