Gyo Obata’s restaurant pavilion on the National Mall will be demolished to make way for the $130 million Bezos Learning Center

The Smithsonian Institution is preparing to demolish one of two buildings designed for the National Mall by the late architect Gyo Obata to make way for a new educational facility called Bezos Learning Center.

Smithsonian officials recently told members of the National Capital Planning Commission and the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) that demolition will begin this spring on the glazed pavilion of the restaurant which open in 1988 as an annex of the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.

The pyramid-shaped pavilion was built largely to serve school groups and others visiting the museum, one of the most visited in the United States, but it has been closed since 2017 and is not protected by any kind landmark designation. Obata and his company, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), designed both. The museum is currently closed for renovations.

Bird’s eye view of the National Air and Space Museum. (Image via National Capital Planning Commission)
Aerial view of the aerial view of the National Air and Space Museum with the restaurant of the museum labeled
Bird’s eye view of the National Air and Space Museum with the restaurant to be demolished surrounded by yellow. (Image via National Capital Planning Commission)

The Bezos Learning Center is a three-story, 50,000 square foot project made possible by a $200 million donation from the billionaire Jeff BezosFounder and Executive Chairman of Amazon and founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin.

The Bezos building will occupy roughly the same footprint as the restaurant pavilion on the east side of the Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian describes it as a world-class educational center offering programs and activities related to innovation and careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It will be connected to all Smithsonian museums, coordinating the institution’s collections and experts, and promoting inquiry-based learning for visitors of all ages, with a focus on underresourced communities.

According to Rick Flansburg, associate director of collections, archives and logistics at the Air and Space Museum, the Bezos building will contain a restaurant on the ground floor, two floors above for programs, and a rooftop terrace with a view. on the National Mall and the US Capitol. . The main entrance to the learning center will be on the second level of the museum.

The southeast corner of the site is likely to become the permanent home of the public Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory, now located on the museum’s southeast terrace, and the eastern edge of the site could become an outdoor astronomy park , according to planners.

No architect has been selected and the Learning Center is a highly sought after commission. The Smithsonian released a solicitation of architects on January 18 and set a deadline for submissions of February 17. The Smithsonian aims to name an architect by the end of this year.

When Bezos’ donation was announced in July 2021, Smithsonian leaders said it was the largest gift the institution had received since James Smithson’s founding contribution in 1846, and that the building would bear the name of Bezos in honor of his gift.

According to the Smithsonian, $130 million of Bezos’ $200 million gift will be used to create the learning center, including $80 million for design and construction and $50 million for programming. The remaining $70 million is for renovations to the nearly 604,000 square foot Air and Space Museum, a project that began in 2018 and is expected to cost more than $360 million. .

aerial view of the national air and space museum
(Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

Marked by its four marble-clad pavilions separated by three glass and steel atriums, the Air and Space Museum spans four city blocks and cost $40 million to build. Planners say it needed revitalization because some building components were decommissioned to keep construction costs down and are worn out. The renovation is led by Architects Quinn Evans. The Smithsonian intends to supplement Bezos’ donation to demolish the existing restaurant, improve the museum’s loading dock, and build a new restaurant, observatory, and astronomy park.

In the 1980s, Obata, who died on March 8 at age 99, was chosen to design the Air and Space Museum – a job that included the restaurant in question – over other modernist architects in foreground who solicited the order, including Kevin Roche and Gordon. Breadfruit. Other key buildings designed by Obata include the Priory Chapel of Saint Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur, Missouri; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport; the Bristol Myers Squibb campus in Princeton, New Jersey, and King Khalid International Airport and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

Carly Bond, historic preservation specialist for the Smithsonian, said the Air and Space Museum is seen as a contributing resource to the National Mall Historic District and is eligible for individual listing in the National Register, but the Glass Restaurant Pavilion is not.

She said the Air and Space Museum contributes to the historic district because it is an “unprecedented significant historic building designed to house a collection of nationally significant artifacts documenting the history of the flight and space travel” and represents the work of a “recognized master”. in architecture, among other factors.

But “after careful evaluation,” she told the National Capital Planning Commission, “it was determined that the addition of the restaurant did not contribute to the historic significance” of the Museum of air and space.

The restaurant pavilion designed by HOK during a recent presentation by the National Capital Planning Commission. (Image via National Capital Planning Commission)

One group that has raised questions about the restaurant pavilion is the Modern Architecture Preservation Advocacy Group Docomomo US. Executive Director Liz Waytkus said A that his organization did not take a position on the Smithsonian’s demolition plan for Obata’s restaurant pavilion, as it first hoped to see the review process revised and more information provided.

“Our organization’s position is that the determination of eligibility [for National Register listing] for the restaurant, the addition of the National Air and Space Museum is incomplete and has results that are inconsistent with our understanding of the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic site rehabilitation, and that ‘Extra energy should have been put into understanding the restaurant and its importance,’ she said.

Waytkus and Docomomo USA vice president for advocacy Todd Grover said they thought the museum and the restaurant pavilion should have been assessed as one project, not separately, because they both have the same owner, are physically connected, are on the same property, have the same input and serve the same general purpose. Docomomo US did not take a position on the demolition itself because members believed it would be premature, she said.

“You can’t make a decision on demolition until you’ve done all your research. We therefore do not wonder whether the building should be demolished or not, [or] if it should be replaced, because they haven’t done enough research on its meaning… It should have been much more thorough on [Obata’s] career and this whole project and not just the restaurant.

Docomomo also disagreed with some findings of the Smithsonian report, Waytkus said.

“We didn’t feel like the Smithsonian had done their due diligence on the importance of adding a restaurant,” she said. “They were saying the restaurant was not functionally linked to the museum…and it was a bit of an afterthought [but] the restaurant was always planned for this site and its construction was delayed due to lack of funding. The restaurant addition is functionally linked to the museum building and should not stand alone in determining its eligibility for the National Register.

“At Docomomo, we are often faced with a double standard for modernism. We hear all the time that “we can only keep one example of a design or designer”. We can only keep one. “You would never say of an earlier period or an earlier designer, ‘McKim, Mead and White, oh, we once kept a McKim, Mead and While building. We don’t need anything anymore. Or Frank Lloyd Wright. Honestly, we hear this all the time.

Waytkus also lamented the demolition from a sustainability perspective. “It’s not an eco-friendly thing to do anymore, putting buildings in dumpsters,” she said. “We have to reuse the fabric we already have.”

Bond told both commissions that Smithsonian planners had explored the idea of ​​retaining and repurposing the restaurant building before and after the announcement of Bezos’ donation, but concluded that the existing building would not be able to accommodate the program envisaged for the Bezos Learning Center without substantial changes. to create more square footage and address “building defects”. Bond said the building was not energy efficient and would be difficult to add to or upgrade.

In terms of eligibility for listing on the National Registry, she said, the later completion date of the restaurant building affects whether it is considered a contributory item to the Air and Space Museum. space.

Bond said Smithsonian trustees and others have drafted an agreement that governs the progress of the project. She said that the agreement, among other points, requests that the Obata building be documented for historical purposes.

She also noted that Docomomo US was the only consulting party that raised questions about the preservation process. “They disagreed with our interpretation of the addition of the restaurant being separate” from the main museum and asked “how Air and Space qualifies for the National Registry” and not the addition of the restaurant, Bond said.

CFA member Duncan Stroik had recommendations for the design of the replacement structure.

Stroik said he thinks there are two possible approaches to the design of the Bezos Center: “One is to simply extend the fabric of the existing building, much like what was recently done at the international airport of Dulles for the work of Eero Saarinen. Or to go ahead and do something that’s really extremely figurative. This has been done with great success, I think, at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. It’s not one of my favorite buildings at all, but I think it’s a very successful example of what I’m offering here at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian schedule calls for demolition work to take place this year; that 2023 is largely devoted to design, and that the construction of the Bezos project starts in 2024 and ends in 2026, the 250and anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the 50and anniversary of the Air and Space Museum.

About James Almanza

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