Designing Discovery: The Iconic Architecture of the Smithsonian

Eric Baldwin Eric Baldwin

Few civic complexes capture the imagination like the Smithsonian. As the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, 9 research centers and affiliates worldwide, the Smithsonian’s collections are housed in diverse buildings around the National Mall and throughout the world. Established in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian Institution features architecture created by renowned firms such as SOM, HOK and Adjaye Associates. Administered by the government of the United States, these buildings have become powerful landmarks that house over 138 million artifacts.

Exploring the eclectic and composed nature of the Smithsonian’s architecture, the following collection showcases a few of the institution’s proposed and built projects within the District of Columbia. Built to encourage new experiences and exploration, the designs center on history, exhibition and global heritage. Together, they represent a monumental effort to further learning and exchange through discovery.

National Museum of African American History and Culture by Adjaye Associates

David Adjaye’s design for the NMAAHC centers on three primary elements: a corona form, a bronze filigree envelope and an extension between the building and the landscape. Built with a majority of the museum’s program located below ground, the project also includes an expansive porch space that creates an outdoor room along the Washington Monument grounds.

© Eric Long

© Eric Long

© Unknown

© Unknown

National Air and Space Museum by HOK

The NASM was designed by Gyo Obata as four simple travertine cubes connected by three steel-and-glass atriums. Housing different exhibit sizes and collection pieces such as missiles, airplanes and spacecraft, the project was created as one of Washington’s most significant works of modern architecture.

National Museum of American History by McKim Mead & White and SOM

Located on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, the original NMAH building was one of the last structures designed by the renowned architectural firm McKim Mead & White. Renovated in 2006 by SOM, the museum collects, preserves and displays the heritage of the United States.

Hirshhorn Museum by SOM, addition proposal by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft in 1974, the Hirshhorn Museum focuses its collection-building and exhibition-planning on the post–World War II period. Sited halfway between the Washington Monument and the US Capitol, the project lies on the L’Enfant axis. Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposed a temporary addition to the museum (shown above) as a seasonal inflatable structure, but plans were scrapped after failed attempts to assure financial support.

Smithsonian Master Plan by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

Created to increase the connectivity of the Smithsonian Institution’s South Mall campus, BIG’s masterplan would link to several existing cultural institutions that are now underground, including the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art. The plan’s public spaces and new entrances would expand from the Freer Gallery to the Hirshhorn Museum.

© Foster + Partners

© Foster + Partners

© Foster + Partners

© Foster + Partners

Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery by Foster + Partners

This graceful enclosure was built to connect the United States Patent Building and the National Portrait Gallery with the Smithsonian American Art museum. Designed above a grand central courtyard, the canopy helps form one of the largest event spaces in Washington.


Design Strategy & Research Center, Korea Institute of Design Prom otion // THE_SYSTEM LAB

Yangsan-si, South Korea

How Video Gaming Tech Will Revolutionize Architecture — No VR Glasses Required

Virtual and Augmented Reality might be the talk of our industry right now as more architects and int erior designers use these to give their clients an immersive preview of projects. But now there’s a new way to preview as well as notate 3D models, which can revolutionize how project teams work — and it doesn’t…