This week I got to see the 28th Annual Orchid Exhibition by Smithsonian Gardens and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and since I’m no orchid expert (understatement alert), can I just rave about the setting? Because the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery is the perfect place to show off 350 live orchids. (They’re on view through April 28. More info here.)

The Courtyard

I’ve seen the show in the lobby of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Museum – meh – and boy what a difference it makes to see them here, in my favorite indoor place in town.

I remember having lunch in this spot when it was open to the sky – a lovely spot that was seldom used. That’s why the decision was made to enclose it, with a design by the famous British architect Norman Foster.  The resulting curved, multi-faceted glass roof knocks your socks off, especially on a sunny day. (And it’s not even one of Foster’s 25 most famous works.) The Kogod Courtyard opened in 2007, named after the principal donor.

The museum describes it as “a distinctive, contemporary accent to the museums’ Greek Revival building. The wavy glass-and-steel roof that appears to float over the 28,000-square-foot courtyard lets in natural light but protects visitors from the elements.”

Foster was “assisted by internationally acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson of Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. in the creation of the courtyard’s interior design, which includes plantings in white marble containers on a black granite floor. The landscaping includes ficus and black olive trees as well as a variety of shrubs and ferns. Gustafson’s plan features four water scrims, each one-quarter inch deep.”

You can see the distinctive scrims in the photo above but even better in this link.  For safety reasons, it’s turned off for crowded events.

Great view of the ceiling’s curves here.


My favorite things in the courtyard are the shadows cast by that roof on a sunny day – or even better, with passing clouds.

Watching the Designers Show, Tell and Spar

I have another personal connection to this place because I watched designers present their ideas for it to the Commission of Fine Arts. (I was there to create transcripts of their meetings – my first career as a “court reporter.”) I watched as requests (or stronger) were made by commissioners, causing the designers to return with revised attempts at approval. With starchitects and other top creatives, this was serious business and I got to watch some glorious outbursts of ego!

I don’t remember if Foster himself came to the meetings, but the Commission definitely required that his roof be lowered so as not to be seen from a distance. (I thought it would look very cool from a distance!) Kathryn Gufstafson attended several meetings herself and I enjoyed her strong presence. There may have been some fangirling involved.

Sculpture, Too

But back to the orchid show, where the plants are joined by “newly commissioned and loaned works by contemporary multimedia artist Phaan Hown to help audiences visualize the future of orchids and be inspired to take action toward a sustainable future… She borrowed patterns of orchids and their habitats to craft adapted speculative landscapes that inspire us all to take action towards a sustainable future.” More info about the sculptures here.

Just Photos

Gratuitous Outdoor Shot

Though DC’s overexposed cherry blossoms weren’t at their peak yet, its magnolia blooms were plenty peaked for the hoards of photographers and tourists I saw on my visit.  Especially popular are views like this one through the Smithsonian’s Moongate.