The Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian

Several weeks ago I was  treated to a small-group tour of some of the highlights of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.  Before we began the tour, we took some time to admire the Arlene and Robert Kogod Courtyard that joins the MAA to its sister building, the National Portrait Gallery.

I wasn’t unfamiliar with the space. Back in my days as a lawyer for the Justice Department, I would meet friends in the courtyard for lunch. But what a difference between then and now. Then it was open to the elements, with just some tables to serve people enjoying lunch brought in from the NPG Cafe – so it could be too hot, or too cold, to use year-round. And while the buildings themselves are beautiful, I often felt the space could use some dressing up.

The Kogods must have heard me. Although technically the Courtyard isn’t a garden, but an interior gathering space, it has plantings (see below) and both its ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ spaces are something special. The ceiling, composed of countless glass and steel panels that undulate above the rooflines of the old buildings, supported by steel columns whose color matches the stone of the buildings almost perfectly. No two panels, it is said, are alike.

Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Norman Foster

Individual “tiles” of the roof of the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.

The patterns of the tiles allow light to play on the walls of the courtyard, lighter or darker depending on how sunny it is outside.
Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American ArtThe ground plane and “understory” areas of this urban landscape – as it might be characterized – were designed by Kathryn Gustafson, a landscape architect renowned for her inclusion of original “water features” in unexpected settings. Here, in the Kogod Courtyard, there are several rectangular water scrims that can be turned off and on, providing the sheerest of areas for visitors to explore (as long as they don’t run through them, asks the museum’s literature describing the area). Sometimes the scrims are turned off for maintenance (or evening events), and they simply disappear.

Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Kathryn Gustafson

One of Gustafson’s quarter-inch deep water scrims invites visitors to explore.

As for plantings, there are four large marble planters (also designed by Gustafson’s Seattle firm). The brochure at the Museum described them as containing two 32′ tall ficus trees (although I saw only one on my visit; perhaps the second one has not survived) and sixteen black olive trees, also called “shady ladies,” as well as a variety of ferns and tropical-looking plants. The planters are generously proportioned, inviting visitors to read or check  e-mail while perched on the planters’ edges (the courtyard has a wireless connection).

Kathryn Gustafson, Kogod Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Art

A Courtyard visitor enjoys a quiet place to read on the edge of one of the marble planters.

In short, this place is a delight to visit. If you’re in the area, stop by – the Museum is open until 7 pm on many evenings (although you should check its website for updates). For more information about the design of the ceiling and the brilliant architect, Norman Foster, behind it, click here.

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5 Comments on “The Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian”

  1. John Says:

    Thanks for posting. It looks even more people-friendly than the last time I was there. What a wonderful use of urban space…

    • Melissa Says:

      The visitors I saw there certainly seemed to be enjoying it – and my older son, who used to live in Penn Quarter, tells me it was one of his favorite places to “work” outside his office (love that wi-fi).


  2. Your photos really capture the beautiful light in this space.


  3. […] The Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian « Garden Shoots […]


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