Visiting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC? Right next to the “brutalist donut” that is the Hirshhorn Museum, you will find another structure from around the same timeframe: the National Air and Space Museum. In contrast with the curved shape of the Hirshhorn, the National Air and Space Museum is all flat planes and right angles. Nonetheless, its overall design is a perfect complement to that of its neighbor.
The History of the National Air and Space Museum
As an institution, the National Air and Space Museum actually dates back to 1946, when it was established as the “National Air Museum” by Congress. But the building you can visit today did not yet exist. Most of the collection related to aviation. Yet it was the space race that spurred President Lyndon Johnson to declare that the museum would be known as the National Air and Space Museum going forward.
It became a priority to build a structure on the DC Mall to house and display the museum’s collections for the public. What you probably wouldn’t guess is whom Smithsonian Secretary C. Dillon Ripley put in charge of the project: none other than Michael Collins, the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 moon mission.
Under Collins’ guidance, American architect Gyo Obata of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum would design the building. They broke ground on the project in 1972, and the museum opened in 1976.
The Design of the National Air and Space Museum
It might surprise you to learn that one of the inspirations for the design of the National Air and Space Museum was actually the National Gallery of Art. That building by John Russell Pope is neoclassical. But Obata stated that it helped him decide on the materials and the overall massing. In fact, if the Tennessee Marble you see in the Air and Space Museum looks familiar, that might be because you already dropped by the National Gallery. It features the exact same marble.
The museum imposed special challenges given the nature of its exhibits. First, it was necessary to find a way to get entire planes and rockets in and out. Second, there had to actually be enough room inside to display them without the structure feeling crowded.
Obata solved the first problem with a huge glass wall on the west side of the structure. This wall can be opened up like a door. That way, the museum can bring in new exhibits or remove old ones.
Obata once said, “The language that architects use to define space is daylight.” While standing in the museum, you may feel a bit like you are in a hangar, given the spacious, airy clear-span design. In fact, at its widest, that span is 700 feet. In combination with the high ceilings and the extensive glass bringing in natural light, the museum feels breathtakingly open, a modern cathedral to flight.
Thanks to the massive windows, visitors can appreciate the planes and rockets while also communing with views of the sky. As the sun rises and sets, the character of the light inside shifts. If a cloud crosses in front of the sun, you’ll instantly notice it from within the structure. This awareness of the heavens engages the imagination, encouraging it to take flight with the crafts on display.
Regarding the future of the museum, the engineering firm Mueller Associates, Inc. discusses its role in a revitalization project which will take place in phases. Along with upgrading the systems that provide power, plumbing, heat and air conditioning to the spacious interior, the firm will be working on improvements to the building’s envelope, galleries and Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. JMT Architecture and Quinn Evans will be working alongside them on the project.
Looking for more examples of Mid Century Modern architecture in Washington DC? Have a look at the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!