Friday, April 10, 2009

A Canopy of Glass

Over a decade ago, I once sat in a beautiful courtyard in downtown Washington DC. The grassy courtyard had lots of trees and park furniture and paths leading to the entrances of the museum buildings around it on all four sides. Now the courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building has been made more beautiful still and transformed into a delightful new public space with a few improvements, most notably a glass canopy.

The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard of the Reynolds Center of the Smithsonian Institution may be more familiarly known as the short-cut between the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum complex is housed in a fine 19th century Greek revival structure, a National Historic Landmark, begun in 1836 under architect Robert Mills and completed in 1867 as one of the city's first public buildings.

In its history, the courtyard was also the site of President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball in 1865. The glass and steel canopy was designed by Foster + Partners. "Given the importance of the Old Patent Office, the design was wholly driven by a deep respect for the existing building," Sir Norman Foster said. "It was decided that it should not touch the building at any point but instead float above it like a cloud over the courtyard." The curved glass top, supported by 8 unobtrusive columns, fills the space with light and a feeling of weightlessness as you walk through the 2,800 square foot space watching the shapes of the grid work above appear to undulate.

Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson contributed to the interior of the space, with the selection of large trees and shrubs and the inviting seating, which are really planters carved of marble. She also designed four very shallow pools of water, adding great drama to the courtyard. Her signature water scrims seem to disappear into the stone floor when not in use.

The space is a remarkable example of history and modern architecture in harmony for the increased usability of the space. And the fabulous result is a place worth visiting and lingering.

Top photo courtesy of David Y. Lee and The New York Times
Bottom photo courtesy of Tim Hursley and the Smithsonian Institution

Lunch is available daily in the Courtyard Cafe 11:30 to 4.

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