At the Hirshhorn, a preservation row tests the bounds of unity between building and landscape.
By Zach Mortice
The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden is a cloistered 1.5-acre art landscape just across Jefferson Drive SW from the museum. Stepped into the earth and filled with modern sculpture arranged in intimate outdoor rooms, it’s a definitive change of pace from the broad civic expanse of the National Mall, though no less significant as it’s the only Smithsonian entity with “Sculpture Garden” in its official name, per the law that established the institution.
The sculpture garden was originally designed by the Hirshhorn Museum’s architect, Gordon Bunshaft. His initial sculpture garden was a harsh, wide expanse of hardscape and gravel when it opened in 1974, centered on a 60-foot-wide rectangular reflecting pool. In 1977 the Smithsonian enlisted Lester Collins to soften the landscape and make it more hospitable, especially during Washington, D.C.’s sweltering summers. When the new landscape opened in 1981, it was with additional lawn and shade cover recessed into the ground—a more layered experience of concrete walls that cordoned off and defined outdoor rooms for the quiet contemplation of sculpture. Collins selected trees with an intense sculptural presence (weeping willows, weeping beeches, ginkgoes, dawn redwoods) and was lauded for his progressively accessible design, nearly a decade before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the museum’s new plan for a revised landscape by the artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto is drawing the attention of landscape advocates who charge that the changes proposed will alter the relationship between the landscape and Bunshaft’s monumental ring of aggregate concrete, two elements of the museum campus that were conceived as one. With the new landscape, the Hirshhorn (the staff is quick to point out that only 15 percent of museum visitors make a visit to the sculpture garden) hopes to offer art lovers more programmatic flexibility in the garden and the chance to host larger, more performance-driven events.
In the proposed plan, Bunshaft’s reflecting pool at the center of the sculpture garden will be joined by a larger U-shaped pool, and the two pools will be bisected by a T-shaped expanse of granite pavers that creates an informal stage. Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, the president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a landscape education and advocacy organization that is consulting on the proposal, says this addition “destroys the relationship between the building and landscape architecture” by disrupting the visual continuity between the rectangular pool and a rectangular window on the north facade of the Hirschhorn Museum, a characteristic feature of the staunchly opaque concrete drum. The new plan also introduces a new material texture: One stacked stone wall will replace an aggregate concrete wall, and new stacked stone walls will be added to the site. Last year, TCLF placed the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden on the annual Landslide list of endangered landscapes.
Even with the change, Smithsonian Senior Historic Preservation Specialist Carly Bond says, “aggregate concrete is still our primary material. It’s the most important wall type for the sculpture garden. If someone’s visiting the National Mall and walking by the Hirshhorn, aggregate concrete is the first material that they will still continue to see.”
While the Collins redesign changed much about Bunshaft’s original landscape, it did retain the architect’s rectangular reflecting pool out of deference to the window forms that share its geometry. As such, Birnbaum says, it’s a significant reference point. “It’s the datum; it’s the benchmark,” he says. “When you alter that, you’re altering the most important relationship between building and landscape architecture.”
The new pool arrangement would offer more flexibility and variable water levels (as it can be drained and refilled), allowing for a wider range of programming opportunities. The new Sculpture Garden could host large performance seating along the terraces at the pool’s perimeter, smaller informal gatherings, and specific curated exhibits placed on the T-shaped art platform between the pools. Larger sound and video art installations and performances that are becoming a mainstay of the art world will be a better fit, and just the sort of eye-catching performance-based exhibitions that modern art curators clamor to bring aboard.
“Our mission is to reflect the art and artist ideas of our time, and our collecting practices certainly do include an interest in time-based art,” says Kate Gibbs, the Hirshhorn’s director of communications and marketing.
Birnbaum is sympathetic to the Hirshhorn’s need for a landscape that offers more flexible programming possibilities, but he doesn’t see why the alteration of the reflecting pool is necessary. “We believe that the programmatic goals of the project can be achieved without destroying the most significant, character-defining visual relationships and materiality association with the core of the Bunshaft-Collins design,” he says.
Bond points out that they have worked to change the landscape plans several times in response to public comments, to preserve more of the original reflecting pool, now fully retained. And even with the newly added pool, the east–west dimensions of the composition still mirror the Hirshhorn window, she says. Just as Collins sought to make the landscape a more temperate and pleasant place, so too will the new plan. “A larger pool will provide evaporative cooling,” Bond says. “The water there tempers the environment, so there’s a lot of opportunity to improve visitor experience.”
Kate Kerin is the landscape curator at Collins’s best-known work, Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, New York. She says that the Sugimoto plan is more likely to take the Hirshhorn back to “the worst parts of the Bunshaft plan. In their desire to make big spaces for big crowds, they are going back to a plan that was very uncomfortable to be in for people.”
Kerin cites the Sugimoto plan’s small decrease in green space, from 49 to 41 percent of the site. But there’s also a “lack of nuance,” she says, that could make the Sculpture Garden “feel like all the other spaces around it,” namely the National Mall, a massive reservoir of open space next door. She fears “losing what makes the space feel special.” The leafy plantings and range of scales and spaces “made it so that you felt, in the midst of a city, like you could be really alone with major works of art.”
With the Sculpture Garden’s asymmetrical design, the central and western sections of it will have more programmatic flexibility, Bond says, but the eastern section of the garden “is always going to have those quiet, intimate, enclosed spaces for people to appreciate art.” And there will be more art throughout: The new plan will enable the museum to display 50 percent more sculpture in the same footprint.
The next Section 106 public hearing will occur on October 7, and the Hirshhorn expects to complete the Section 106 consultation process (intended to allow federal agencies to identify and mitigate negative impacts on historic buildings and sites) by the spring of next year.
Bunshaft famously conceived the Hirshhorn as piece of functional sculpture itself, and because the landscape and the building are a “single and total work of art,” says Birnbaum, absolute fidelity to the relationship between the building and landscape is warranted. “The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is the largest curatorial object in the Smithsonian’s collection,” he says, “and should be afforded the highest possible curatorial standards.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that a single stacked stone wall would be added to replace an extant aggregate wall under the new plan. The plan includes additional stone walls to be added to the site where none now exist.