Five Design Proposals for the Bezos Learning Center Open to Public Comment

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Just over a year after being thrown into the skies aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard, a major part of billionaire space tourist and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ record $200 million gift to the Smithsonian Institution to revamp the National Air and Space Museum begins to take shape. As design and renovation work continues at the aviation-themed museum – the square marble structure, adjoining the National Mall in Washington, D.C. designed in 1976 by the late Gyo Obata – it was announced in April that part of the Obata design would be razed to make way for a new educational building on the site dubbed the Bezos Learning Center.

The Smithsonian has now unveiled five proposed designs for the new building, a three-story, 50,000 square foot facility that will offer science, arts and technology programs and activities to visitors. The structure will rise on the site of a pyramid-shaped glass restaurant pavilion by Obata and his company, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (now better known as HOK), which opened in 1988 The construction of the Bezos Learning Center involves the demolition of the restaurant, which has angered preservation groups including Docomomo. At the time, the organization shared with A that he hoped the pavilion, which is not listed or protected, would be reviewed again and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“We didn’t feel the Smithsonian had done their due diligence on the importance of adding the restaurant,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo in the United States. “They were saying the restaurant was not functionally related to the museum…The addition of the restaurant is functionally related to the museum building and should not stand alone in determining its eligibility for the National Register.”

Bezos’ $200 million donation is part funding for the ongoing renovation of the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian’s most visited institution. Architects at work are Architects Quinn Evans, which began work on the project in 2018. With $70 million earmarked for ongoing renovations, the remaining $130 million is for the Bezos Learning Center. This isn’t the first time the billionaire has written a generous check to the Smithsonian, he’s also contributed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a founding donor, and has donated money to the Museum before. Air and Space National. In 2016, Bezos received a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Technology.

Designs for Bezos’ facility were solicited in January, and the Smithsonian has now opened all five options for public comment and expects to announce the winning company before the end of the year. The design practices behind each of the proposals have yet to be named, but the project images for each of the designs are now very public. Each of the proposals incorporated elements of spatial architecture, with space travel serving as inspiration for the building and its interiors.

The five design proposals are listed below, along with more information about the project on line. The form to submit comments is open until September 19.

Company A design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
rocket in the atriujm of the bezos learning center
Company A design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Company A

This design is inspired by the structure of honeycombs also imitated in the form of the International Space Station and the James Webb Telescope. It features a mirrored facade that reflects its surroundings. Large windows throughout the building allow guests to look out towards the National Mall and the surrounding landscape. Likewise, those outside the building can peek inside the facility where a rocket from Blue Origin, the aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company owned to Jeff Bezos, is on display. A hexagonal-shaped skylight tops the building, and a grassy landscape surrounding the structure will be open to the public as a park.

stripes run across the facade of the proposed bezos learning center
Company B design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Practice B

Drawing from the metaphor that “the sky connects us all with a shared sense of wonder and possibility”, this design embraces the act of looking up. The base of the building is set back from the ground, raising an angular massing. The facade of the building features thin bands of triangular shaped window openings, its shape and pattern draw the eye upwards. A pointed balcony, designed for the use of visitors, juts out at one end. He proposes to add to the site a net zero astronomy park with a public observatory powered by photovoltaic panels.

round shape proposal for bezos learning center
Company C design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
interior of round shape proposal for bezos learning center
Company C design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Cabinet C

The rounded form of this design is inspired by the shapes – namely domes and curves – found on monuments and other structures lining the National Mall, and its use of materials is reminiscent of rockets. Its bulbous form is open to the front facade to create an expansive gazebo. Rising outward from the center of the building is a spaceship-like platform that forms an observation deck. Surrounding the site is a carefully maintained garden, with a sunken observation building completely hidden in the grassy landscape.

aerial view of the proposed bezos learning center
Company D design proposal for Bezos Learning Center (courtesy Smithsonian Institution)
curved glass window in proposed bezos learning center
Company D design proposal for Bezos Learning Center (courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

Cabinet D

Similar to the spiral pattern of galaxies, this design could be compared to that of the Milky Way. Two inclined and curved volumes form the building: at the front is a glass-clad structure with a circular banded volume attached to the rear. An oval-shaped hole pierces the roof of the building to form a sky terrace; below the roof overhang extends a cantilevered viewing platform. At the front of the building, a paved plaza, the Learning Yard, serves as an entrance and engagement space.

glass frit facade on proposed bezos learning center
Enterprise E design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
indoor walk at proposed bezos learning center
Enterprise E design proposal for the Bezos Learning Center (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Company E

This design envisions the Bezos Learning Center as a “module” of the larger National Air and Space Museum campus. The company’s concept and design were influenced by nebula, or the formation of future stars. Its facade will be completely covered in a fritted glass design that mimics the limestone construction found on Obata’s adjacent museum building. One element of the design is the Skywalk, an atrium-like walkway in the building with winding glass arches.

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Rozella J. Cook