The conceptual design for a new Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, designed by photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, was recently approved by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), following an approval from the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in May. This comes amid concerns from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) that the current design, which was created by landscape architect Lester Collins in 1981 to significantly modify the original 1974 design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, is a masterwork of Modernist landscape architecture and should be preserved. The organization included the garden, which displays some 60 sculptures, in its “landslide” list, which aims to raise awareness about threatened culturally significant landscapes.
There are three major components of the redesign: reorganizing the spaces of the garden to meet the need for more event space, reopening the underground tunnel that connected the garden and the museum under Jefferson Drive, and creating new stacked stone walls. The reorganization and stacked stone walls would greatly shift away from Collins’ design.
Sugimoto’s design breaks the garden into three distinct sections, which the CFA called “lawn, pool, and grove.” The West Garden, or lawn, and the pool will house new forms of sculpture and provide spaces for performance art, while the East Gallery, or grove, will showcase the museum’s existing collection of bronze sculptures.
Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, thinks this will allow the museum to better accommodate the increasing scale of 21st century art and growing popularity of performance art.
The reflecting pool, which was in the original design for the site by architect Gordon Bunshaft, will be enlarged to accommodate a performance platform. The design team proposed four options for the pool. NCPC vice-commissioner Thomas Gallas preferred alternative option 1, which integrated the existing pool, at a depth of 6 inches, with a larger pool, at a depth of 3 inches, and the performance platform. NCPC also asked for an option that retained the original dimensions of the reflecting pool found in Bunshaft’s design. CFA had reservations about the new design of the pool as well, critiquing the “generic quality and functional limitations in creating a flexible performance space.”
Restructuring the garden with a reworked system of ramps will allow for greater accessibility for wheelchair users and families with strollers. In Collins’ redesign, the only accessible entrance from the National Mall is on the north side of the garden. A visitor needing the ramp entrance coming from the museum would have to go around to the other side of the garden.
The new plan creates a ramp system that starts from Jefferson Drive, greatly increasing the accessibility of the garden. The ramp system would snake around the West Gallery before providing access to the rest of the garden. Many NCPC commissioners thought that increasing accessibility was important.
Reopening the tunnel running between the museum and the garden contains its own set of challenges. The passageway still exists, having been turned into ARTLAB+, a learning center for teens to engage with the latest technology. The tunnel was closed, in part, because it felt unsafe to visitors, who subsequently didn’t use it. The original opening into the plaza wasn’t large enough to light the length of the stairs.
The new design proposes enlarging the opening to the edge of the historic plaza stairs, an option NCPC commissioners thought was an appropriate balance to make the space feel safer and retain the historic character of the plaza. Based on solar angle studies, this would allow light to reach the bottom of the stairs and, when paired with a new stainless steel wall cladding, will brighten the length of the tunnel. Sugimoto based the shape of the wall cladding on a mathematical formula, a technique he has used before for sculptural work.
The introduction of stacked stone walls received the most push back from the commissioners, although not for historical reasons. Sugimoto seeks to create a hierarchy of walls so that all of the proposed or reclad walls will be shorter than the existing exposed aggregate concrete walls. Almost all of these walls are meant to define rooms in which sculptures can be exhibited.
Commissioner Mina Wright felt that, although the new walls were successful in creating display rooms, they would be too busy and potentially distract from art work displayed in front of them. Vice-commissioner Gallas mirrored these concerns, although directed at the largest wall that would serve as a backdrop of the performances of the reflecting pool. He expressed concern that the wall was over sized and less successful at creating a room because it spanned across multiple sections of the redesigned garden.
CFA also directed the design team to continue to study the stone stacked walls to ensure they acted as a backdrop for the work rather than a distraction. TCLF opposes the stacked stone walls because they believe they would diminish the legacy of Collins’ design.
The existing plan is subject to a Section 106 review, a stipulation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). Every federal agency has to assess the effects of proposed changes to historic resources. Furthermore, public values need to be considered when determining the historical significance of a project. In the case of the Sculpture Garden, this is complicated by a classification called the period of significance (POS), which for the Hirshhorn complex ends in 1974. The POS is set by the Smithsonian and determines the explicit time frame that should be considered for historical significance.
Gordon Bunshaft was the architect of the Hirshhorn building and the original designer of the Sculpture Garden, which was completed in 1974. The garden was entirely exposed aggregate concrete, making it miserably hot during the D.C. summer. The sunken garden was only accessible from a series of stairs, making it inaccessible to visitors in a wheelchair. Public backlash was harsh, and a redesign of the garden was committed to by 1976.
Enter Lester Collins, who at this point was a well-known D.C.-based landscape architect. He worked with the character of the garden, incorporating plants and trees for shade as well as introducing a ramp from the North entrance, off of the National Mall, that was the beginning of an accessible route through the entire garden. As TCLF puts it, “the redesign aimed to afford every user a dignified arrival and a comparable spatial experience.” The space became enjoyable to spend time in, a place to contemplate art and the gardens relation to the larger museum. At the time of its unveiling in 1981, even Bunshaft felt the redesign was “sensitive and well-proportioned.”
But the POS doesn’t extend to include this addition, only the original Bunshaft design. The Section 106 review only has to account for designs within the POS. The TCLF has two fights ahead of them, extending the POS set by the Smithsonian and then ensuring the new design doesn’t interfere with the cultural resources of Collins’ design.
Because of the limitations of the POS, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and by extension the Smithsonian, currently has every legal right to change the garden to better meet its perceived needs. Both NCPC and CFA found that the configuration of the garden has been subject to changes based on use and accessibility concerns throughout its lifetime. The proposed redesign is a new layer in its history. Neither commission took the Section 106 review as a limiting factor during the conceptual design phase of the review process.
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of TCLF, who is a strong advocate for Collins’ original design, posits that “if the Smithsonian deems a work of landscape architecture that is part of its material collection culturally insignificant that sends a dangerous message about the worth of landscape architecture more broadly.” Others have joined TCLF in opposition to the redesign, including Docomomo DC, a group aimed at promoting Modernist works, and District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO), who were a part of deciding the POS time frame for the Hirshhorn.
Only the conceptual phase of the project has passed the CFA and NCPC, meaning there are at least two more rounds of approval with each commission. During the intervals of this meetings the Section 106 battle will continue, as only the first step out of four has occurred. The second consultation meeting for the Section 106 review is tentatively scheduled for July or August of this year.
All parties involved agree that something needs to be done to revitalize the garden, but the debate focuses on what and how much should be changed. The Hirshhorn museum currently holds the upper hand. But the debate is far from over and will only become fiercer the closer it comes to a close.