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A light in the earth. Shafts and pools of light illuminate art of Africa, Asia, and the Near East in Washington's two new subterranean museums

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1987


`SO here we go down ..., down 64 feet...,'' says Jean Paul Carlhian, the architect who is leading us deep into the earth and down to the light - down towards his two astonishing new underground museums that plunge far below the level of their neighbor, the Smithsonian Castle. Like Alice disappearing into the rabbit hole or Orpheus descending, Carlhian leads us below to the wells of natural light that illuminate the new museums: the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian and Near Eastern Art. The $73.2 million, three-story, below-ground complex, which also houses the Smithsonian's International Center, will open Sept. 28. (Funding came from $36.6 million in federal money, and from private donations.)

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``You go down to hell; you go down to Filene's Basement...,'' says the debonair French architect from the Boston firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott. ``But you go up to heaven - you go up to the altar,'' he adds, referring to the treasures that will be contained below.

``There I was, asked to take people down to multimillion-dollar collections. Therefore, I had this preoccupation with how to make their journey down as exciting or adventurous or enticing as possible, ... elevating their spirits as they were going down.''

He decided to lift their spirits by having natural light penetrate the underground rooms. There are huge, transparent rose windows and vast skylights that create unexpected shafts and pools of light at every turn. The pale limestone used in both museums was chosen for its reflective properties. On the third level down, which is below the water table of the adjacent Tiber Creek, there is even a small round pond of light paved with tile imported from China and filled with water that reflects the sky far above. ``We always try to bring light down,'' says the Paris-born architect, who is a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Harvard University.

That was his vision as architect when S. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian, hired the Boston firm to carry out his concept of double museums embracing the art of half the world. The original design concept for Ripley's underground twins was done by Junzo Yoshimura of Tokyo.

The vastness of the project Carlhian has worked on for eight years is measured in terms of an excavation ``big enough to hold three Lincoln Memorials side by side,'' the architect notes. ``The earth taken out [371,000 tons] is equivalent to two Queen Elizabeth II ocean liners. It was a very big hole.''

It was also a very big challenge: Create two underground museums, each with its own above-ground entrance pavilion, but design them in styles that won't battle with the romantic, red-sandstone Smithsonian Castle or the Arts and Industries Building (A&I), both designed in high Victorian style by the celebrated James Renwick Jr.) or with the neoclassic Renaissance design of the Freer Gallery. And make it harmonize with an elaborate triple garden covering 4.2 acres - a Victorian ``Parterre'' central garden, flanked on the east by one inspired by the Alhambra, with its African/Islamic culture, and on the west by one with an Oriental flavor, hinting at Peking's Temple of the Sun.