Ian Ritchie Architects was one of six international practices shortlisted in December 2003 to submit second stage designs to enclose the courtyard of the Smithsonian Institute Patent Office Building in Washington DC. The Patent Office Building houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Combined, the two museums hold the most comprehensive collection of American art in the world. The renovated building’s newly enclosed courtyard is intended to be a central focus of public cultural gatherings in the nation’s capital.
The concept for our proposal is a ‘Cultural Living Room’ for the Smithsonian Institute and for Washington DC. We imagined this as a unique multi-purpose space welcoming the public to enjoy and learn about American art and also to play centre stage for a variety of very special events. It is capable of transforming itself from a beautiful daylit court to a more intimate social space of breathtaking quality.
There are three principle surfaces in the design – 1) a glass roof, 2) a prismatic glass ceiling (‘chandelier’) and 3) a tactile stainless steel patterned floor.
The design of the new roof structure and roof glazing has a calm visual impact on the internal space. The crystalline ceiling plane is designed to be in harmony with the colours, rhythm and scale of the existing stone walls. It contains laminated glass in the form of linear blades of prismatic cross section. This surface acts as a transparent ‘picture plane’ that captures Washington’s sky during the day and provides a reflected image of the people within the space at night. The floor is conceived as an island edged by a mirrored ‘moat’ that follows the cornice line above. This moat reflects the existing solid architecture ‘into’ the ground. The island floor material is sound deadened shot-peened stainless steel, a predominantly fine grain satin surface patterned with small irregular mirrored ‘islands’ to produce a subtle ‘map’ of the USA interpreted from a night satellite image. A translucent, soft ultra-fine metal curtain, 60ft high, coated on the inner surface with vaporised gold and silver can be deployed to change the feel and scale of the space for events. This curtain is a beautiful component that can offer a number of surprising practical benefits in the use of the space. Lighting its surface, or the stone walls beyond the curtain, offers further potential to imbue the ‘Cultural Living Room’ with a physical and emotional identity.