Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Redesign


Docomomo US staff


News, Advocacy
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The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Its commission was necessitated by Joseph H. Hirshhorn's donation of his extensive art collection to the Smithsonian in 1966. Completed in 1974, it was the first modernist building on the National Mall. The concrete-clad, drum-shaped structure drew both pans and raves from architecture critics. In 1981 the sculpture garden underwent a redesign led by landscape architect Lester Collins, the result of which is what exists at the site today. Additionally, the entrance plaza was modified in the 1990s by Urban & Associates (now the Office of James Urban). Today, the site is under review for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and receives close to 1 million visitors/year.


Sculpture Garden and Assessment of Effects Update
Summer 2020 

As the Smithsonian Institution wrapped up the exterior revitalization plans in early 2020, the Docomomo US Advocacy Committee focused its attention to the larger goals for the Sculpture Garden. In February 2020, the Smithsonian released the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Significance and Integrity Report. With this report, consulting parties successfully persuaded the Smithsonian Institution to modify the period of significance to include the changes made to the garden in 1981 by Lester Collins.


While this inclusion showed progress, extensive changes impacting the historic integrity of the Sculpture Garden have remained, and even expanded, in the updated project plans. Consulting parties continue to speak out against avoidable adverse effects on critically important historic elements such as the expansion to the reflecting pool, and the addition of stacked stone walls that would “significantly alter Bunshaft’s design and denigrate the crucial visual relationship between the museum and its sculpture garden.”


Reflecting Pool

The design and dimensions of the reflecting pool and its relationship to the museum’s balcony overlooking the garden remains one of the most critical design elements of the entirety of the site. The visual relationship of the balcony and building to the garden cannot be understated. While there are some initial Bunshaft sketches showing a larger pool, this was not the final built design. But yet, in each project update, an enlarged pool remains, and the critical relationship of the garden and pool is significantly obscured. Docomomo US believes that enlarging the pool will create a false historical appearance which will significantly diminish the integrity of the site.

Addition of Stacked Stone Walls

Referencing Japanese Zen gardens, the historic sculpture garden offers visitors a minimalist palette of materials and landscaping, to provide a delicate balance of openness, shelter and framing devices for sculpture. One of our main take-a-ways from the Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden Significance and Integrity Report is Collins’ masterful ability to balance the overlapping sculpture views with vertical plantings rather than introducing physical walls, which were analyzed in the 1981 renovation, but ultimately deemed unnecessary. Docomomo US finds the proposed introduction of numerous stacked rock walls a significant negative impact to the integrity of the garden. While stone walls can be found at other sites on the mall, the specific materials precedent for the Sculpture Garden should be drawn from the Hirshhorn landscape elements (introduced by Collins) and not the larger materials palette of the National Mall Historic District. By placing stacked stone walls at each and every vista as one travels through the garden, it dilutes the original design intent and negatively impacts the garden’s integrity of design, feeling, materials, and workmanship, as well as association with the designers. Collins careful understanding of room hierarchy delicately placed plantings as a means of defining space while not taking away from the purpose and aesthetics of the exposed aggregate concrete walls that are featured in other significant museum sculpture gardens constructed between 1950 and 1990.

In addition reflecting pool changes and the introduction of stacked stone walls, the proposal includes other design elements that create a significant adverse effect on the resource: 

  • Site modifications to accommodate a significant increase in performance art in the West Garden and the area around the reflecting pool
  • Proposed circulation changes throughout and grade changes to the southwest corner
  • Introduction of a new north stair and lateral ramps
  • The reopening of the underground passage and historic stairs in a new configuration
  • Introduction of amphitheater seating, increased hardscape and reduction of grass areas across the site


Third Phase

Docomomo US has also recently become aware of a third phase: an interior rehabilitation and expansion of the Hirshhorn Museum. As the Smithsonian Institution rolls out each of these phases over time “in a way to allow the Hirshhorn to remain open to visitors” it does little to minimize or address the impact each of these phases creates as a whole. Docomomo US will continue to advocate for this important resource. It is our opinion the Smithsonian Institution has not yet clearly identified the total of the adverse effects, and is shoehorning incompatible programmatic decisions into onto this historic site.


Call to action

Docomomo US urges members to review the proposed changes and participate in the upcoming October 7, 2020 public presentation. https://hirshhorn.si.edu/sculpture-garden-revitalization/

Renovations and Section 106 Process

In early 2019, the Smithsonian announced plans to redesign the sculpture garden, entrance plaza, and to make improvements to building envelope. The museum board chose architect and artist Hiroshi Sugimoto for the sculpture garden portion of the project. Sugimoto was also responsible for the 2018 redesign of the museum lobby. The primary goals of the garden renovation are to allow for the display of larger artwork and performance art, improved ADA access, and improved access between the garden and museum. The proposal includes reopening the original tunnel that connected the museum and garden, which was closed during the 1990s renovation. For the building envelope, proposed changes include the replacement of all of the original precast panels on the building façade, the roof, and the third floor outer ring window that looks onto the garden and Mall. 

The project is subject to Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act. Both Docomomo US and Docomomo US/DC were asked to participate. A meeting was held on April 10 which both Docomomo US and the DC chapter attended. View the meeting presentation here. 

In a joint letter to the Smithsonian, Docomomo US and Docomomo US/DC commended the Smithsonian for undertaking efforts to make the sculpture garden more accessible and improving the connection to the museum by reopening the original tunnel, however also raised a number of concerns and recommended alternate approaches be considered. Notably, that the replacing all of the original precast concrete panels should be not be undertaken without first exploring all other options, and the introduction of stacked stone walls in the garden, a feature that is not currently found elsewhere on the site.