Housing Complex

Latest Would-be Mall Occupant Wants to Win The Future


The number of prospective museums and memorials angling for space on or near the National Mall probably outnumbers the total number that exist already. The latest to come across Housing Complex's radar screen, though, just wants to put a dormant existing building back to work: The Smithsonian Institution's 130-year-old Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed since 2006 for renovations.

The full retrofit could cost as much as $200 million, so they've been moving in pieces, as money becomes available–$25 million to repair the exterior in 2009, another $30 million from Congress recently to replace the roof. While the building creeps towards habitability, several groups are vying to see their vision installed there. First out of the gate with a public presence is the "Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation," which now has a website and the (so far non-monetary) support of the Kauffman Foundation. Like all would-be Mall occupants, it also has a passionate advocate in the form of George Mason University associate professor Philip Auerswald.

Auerswald, who runs a journal at MIT called Innovations, knows his audience. He praises what the Institution is already doing with its Smithsonian Commons project, and has crafted the proposal to fit Secretary Wayne Clough's four stated goals for the building's future use. And, he argues, the Center idea is really a return to the essential ideals of chemist and meteorologist James Smithson, who allowed the Institution to get started in the first place. "This isn't some sort of arbitrary repurposing," he says. "It really is a restoration of the core mission of the Smithsonian as defined by the action of Smithson, not just the word."

So what would the Center do? In its website copy, it still comes across as pretty vague (or at least repetitive). The Center's vision statement says it will "communicate and advance America’s vital role in the 21st century as a source of solutions to global challenges," "encourage the discovery, development and deployment of entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges," and "foster an entrepreneurial culture that leverages emerging technology and rewards innovation."

But a concept statement adds more detail about what the Center might actually feature–the National Geographic Museum's "Design for the Other 90 Percent" exhibit, for example, would fit right in. Auerswald also talks about bringing innovators and entrepreneurs together for creative exchange, a "D-Lab" for policy formation, a "Genius Bar" with the "resources to start a business in an hour or less."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas says they would most likely issue a request for proposals for the space, which would probably be leased. Nothing can happen until enough money accumulates to finish the renovations, but jockeying for momentum begins now.

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