Exacting a transformation

Niki May Young
Monday 27 Oct 2008

Foster + Partners breath new life into Smithsonian public space

Saved from the prospective swing of a demolition ball in 1958 by President Eisenhower, the United States Patent Building in Washington DC has since undergone a revitalization into the Smithsonian Institute. Most recently, under the design prowess of Foster + Partners, the central Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard has been added spectacularly transforming the central space. Previously overgrown with shrubbery and trees which rendered the space unusable, the courtyard now functions all year round under an undulating glass canopy, a transformation which has been rewarded at the World Architecture Festival Awards, coming first in its category of New and Old.

Foster + Partners were commissioned to reclaim the space as the centerpiece of the building’s long-term renovation programme. Structurally, the roof is composed of three interconnected vaults that flow into one another through softly curved valleys. The double-glazed panels are set within a diagrid of fins, clad in acoustic material, which together form a rigid shell that needs to be supported by only eight columns. Visually, the roof is raised above the walls of the existing building, clearly articulating the new from the old. Seen illuminated at night, this canopy appears to float above the Patent Building, symbolising the cultural importance of the Smithsonian Institution and giving new life to a popular Washington landmark.

Judge for the New and Old Category and RIBA President Sunand Prasad said: “A number of schemes (entered in the awards) involved the adroit insertion of modern elements into existing structures to release hidden functional and spatial potential… the covering of the courtyard at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, USA by Foster + Partners is an exquisite example of this approach: the technically highly sophisticated canopy not only creates a new thermally conditioned urban room for Washington but also excellent acoustics and new connectivities.”

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