Battles Ahead: Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign

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Proposed Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hirshhorn Museun

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.

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Major zones of the redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

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.”

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Alternative 1 for the pool’s redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

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.

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Sketch of new accessible route from North and South sides / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

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.

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Proposed entryway to connecting tunnel / Hiroshi Sugimoto, Smithsonian

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.

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Rendering of stacked stone wall with bronze sculpture / Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.

Bunshaft’s Sculpture Garden as built in 1974 / Smithsonian

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.”

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Collin’s 1981 redesign greatly increased green space in the garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C. photo: OLIN

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.

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Current state of the sculpture garden / Smithsonian

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.

Rooftop Dunes Bring the Beach to the City

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Groenmarkt dune roof / Buro Harro

The beach is 15 miles from the center of Amsterdam, but a small piece of it will soon exist among the windy rooftops of the city. Buro Harro, a Dutch firm co-led by landscape architect Harro de Jong, in conjunction with Ronald Janssen Architecten and Bastiaan Jongerius Architecten, are building a dune roof on one building of the Groenmarkt complex. The team won the competition for the project in 2015 and construction is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

Groenmarkt (Green Market) was a fruit and vegetable market that occupied the block from 1898 to 1934. Today, the complex consists of a 35-unit apartment building, four private town homes, and a small urban square linking the buildings. The complex sits along the Singelgracht, a canal that once marked the outer limit of the city.

The design team transformed the notion of the green roof. Much of the development in Amsterdam is similar in height, approximately 14 meters (45 feet), which de Jong describes as a place where “the wind blows as in completely open landscapes.” The unique rooftop micro-climate inspired the team to draw from a similar windswept landscape that Dutch people enjoy, even during stormy weather: the beach.

The roof will be complete with sand, beach grass, and a salt water pool. De Jong believes “the sounds of Amsterdam in the background will be like the murmuring of the sea.”

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Saltwater pool situated within the dunes / Buro Harro

Accomplishing this feat is not as simple as it sounds. Beach ecosystems are fragile, with each layer of dunes playing a vital role. Dunes rely on colonizing species, usually grasses to help secure the top layer of sand from blowing away. Eventually layers of dunes develop, from primary, closest to the water’s edge, to tertiary. Tertiary dunes are more stable, because of decreased wind exposure, which allows more plant growth and even some small trees to grow within them. Buro Harro plans to use this kind of dune for the Groenmarkt roof.

In order to do this, the firm will transplant part of the dune onto the roof. They used this technique for Bartokpark, but now face the added difficulty of trying to move a dune on to the roof.

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Transplanted dune in Bartokpark / Buro Harro

Ultimately, the effect will be a fully-formed tertiary-like dune, with a variety of grasses and a few small trees to provide shade and further stability. The transplantation method provides an ecological base to work from, but the team will consult with ecologists to ensure the dunes are able to thrive.

Typical dune fencing will establish the boundary of the walking space on the roof, with walking paths keeping people off the grasses.

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Beach fencing seen from the pavilion / Buro Harro

Other elements of the project: trees will be introduced in the plaza, encouraging residents to use the plaza throughout the year.

Typically, residential blocks in Amsterdam are formal and flat on their public facade, while the interior courtyard is a collage of balconies and greenery.

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Typical block in Amsterdam / Photo by Liene Ratniece on Pexels.com

The team decided to invert this relationship so that, according to de Jong, “the outside of the building becomes very irregular and very green.”

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View of Groenmarkt from the Singelgracht / Buro Harro

The decision to turn the social space outward gives the project an identity from the river and improves connectivity with the plaza. De Jong also created pre-fabricated nesting spaces in the facade for bats and birds. Holes in the floor slabs allow vine growth.

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Vine structures spanning multiple floors / Buro Harro

Buro Harro has plans for other kinds of roof environment — for instance, orchards or wet landscapes that contain stornwater runoff. De Jong has found people will pay extra for integrated architecture and landscape. This allows his firm to “multiply landscapes through architecture,” creating spaces for both people and biodiversity.

Democratizing New Urbanism

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Building Local Strength / Congress for New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been around for nearly 30 years. The movement promotes the neighborhood as a livable unit, prioritizes walkability in communities, and seeks to end sprawling suburbs. With these goals, new urbanists have developed entirely new communities with multiple types of residences, shops, and cultural centers. Lots of money is needed to develop these projects, which often results in a high cost of living, fueling criticism that the movement is only able to serve the social and economic elite.

A new report, Building Local Strength: Emerging Solutions for Inclusive Development, produced by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), highlights eight projects across the country that seek to improve existing communities that are economically disadvantaged. The methods explored in the report focus on “smaller, more gradual change,” allowing the character of the existing neighborhood to remain intact.

Through the examination of eight projects, CNU identifies fourteen tools to implement New Urbanist policies, which include: acquiring and aggregating vacant land, respecting local history, creating philanthropic funds, using tactical urbanism, promoting incremental development, and creating an active and beautiful public realm. Each of the strategies is explained in detail, followed by a matrix at the end of the report showing what tools each project used.

The group calls for a holistic approach to revitalization. As the report notes: “A well-functioning neighborhood requires that employment and recreation opportunities, neighborhood-serving retail, schools, public gathering space, and affordable housing are all available within a walkable transit-oriented environment.” In the report, refurbishing existing housing or developing new homes are the primary medium for revitalization (Grow DeSoto Market Place in DeSoto, Texas being the exception).

All of the projects have merit, but two stood out:

The Anacostia neighborhood sits across the Potomac river from the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been economically disadvantaged for years and is now facing a gentrification threat from the development of the new 11th Street Bridge Park, which will span the Anacostia River where the 11th street bridge stands. The nonprofit organization creating the park, Building Bridges Across the River, led the creation of an equitable development plan, which aims to help renters within a one-mile radius of the park buy their homes at a discounted rate, limiting displacement. If they choose to sell at any point, homeowners agree to return 75 percent of the equity earned on the house to the trust. This will help ensure the trust’s longevity and homeowners create wealth.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

A million dollar grant given by JP Morgan will go towards growing small businesses on either side of the Anacostia River, further helping to strengthen the neighborhoods. The combination of efforts to ensure residents can stay within their homes — and in many cases own them — along with the development of the local economy is crucial to improving the quality of life of residents of the neighborhood.

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A typical home in Anacostia / Wikipedia

In Portland, Oregon, Jolene’s First Cousin, developed by Guerilla Development, is a mixed-use project with a social mission. Construction has already begun, with completion scheduled for 2019. Combining retail space and housing, the project includes single occupancy rooms that are meant for the recovering homeless population. There are nearly 4,000 people on the streets of Portland on any given night. Oregon ranks second for the highest percentage of unsheltered people, behind California, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report.

The development was partially crowdfunded by pools of smaller investors. In this case, $300,000 was raised by 43 investors, which built upon an additional $1.5 million construction loan. Many of the investors were from Portland, “showing a strong market for this type of investing,” writes CNU. The report leaves out that many of these investors had invested in a previous project by Guerilla Development, Fair-Haired Dumbell, which was already producing returns. Still, crowdfunded opportunities give everyday people a stake in the success of a neighborhood.

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The first Guerilla Development crowdfunded project, One + Box / Guerilla Development Company

Many of the strategies outlined in the report focus on the economic side of sustainable urban development. While these are important, they are only one part of the holistic approach CNU calls for.

The report highlights strategies for producing positive incremental change in underprivileged communities — approaches also designed to prevent displacement. This is an important step in eliminating CNU’s elitist reputation.

Combating Alpine Sprawl with Gondolas

Urbanizing the Alps: Strategies for the Densification of Mountain Villages / Birkhäuser

Beyond the 14 million residents of the Alps, the region receives nearly 120 million visitors a year. Continued sprawl into mountain ecosystems, which are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change, threaten their long-term environmental health as well as the communities at lower altitudes that rely on their snow melt for water.

In her new book, Urbanizing the Alps: Densification Strategies for Mountain Villages, Dr. Fiona Pia rejects the picturesque chalet, set apart in nature, as a model for Alpine development, instead calling for walkable, compact villages accessible via gondolas. Graphic analyses offer visual insights into the planning strategies (or lack thereof) in five alpine villages.

An inspection of the immense sprawl of Verbier, a Swiss town that began expanding in the 1930s with the rise of recreational skiing, provides the basis for Pia’s critique. The town has nearly 3,000 residents, a number that swells to 35,000 during the winter season. Some 90 percent of the properties here are categorized as residential. Many are designed as chalets despite their uncharacteristic proximity to one another. Verbier has expanded from its core up the mountainside. Pia likens the expanding roads to a “principal network onto which are grafted a multitude of capillaries.” Matched with a disconnected pedestrian path system, the result is overcrowded roads.

Collection of individual chalets in Verbier / Wikipedia

Some 64 percent of residential property in Verbier is classified as second homes. At the beginning of 2016, the Foundation Franz Weber Second Homes Initiative went into effect, denying construction of new second homes in communities that already have over 20 percent second homes. This limits the economic model on which many Swiss alpine villages, including Verbier, were developed.

Pia states: “Verbier is reaching its limit of sustainability” due to the “depletion of building plots, major mobility problems, climate disruption, and the prohibition to build new second homes.”

Four other towns — Zermatt, Switzerland; Avoiraz, France; Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada; and Andermatt, Switzerland — are studied in a similar fashion.

Sprawl of Whistler Blaccomb, Canada / Google Earth

Sprawl found in four of the villages is countered by the hope of a new, sustainable approach to development in Andermatt, a village of around 1,500 people about 75 miles south of Zurich, which is undergoing a significant redevelopment project to improve walkability and create new social spaces. The Egyptian billionaire-led, 1.8 billion Swiss Franc redevelopment of the village, which began in 2007 and will run through 2030, is adding new cultural and sports centers, six high-end hotels, and vehicular and gondola transportation capacity to the city core. The architecture and plan of the new development mimic the existing feel of the village.

Using the ideas developed through these analyses, Pia returns to Verbier, proposing a series of chair-lift nodes that could form a ring around the city to alleviate traffic congestion and offer access to nearby housing and cultural spaces. Each of the five chair-lift bays are located on land owned by the city. The two eastern-most bays would connect to the surrounding landscape, establishing a network of towns along the mountainside. Although certainly an expensive investment, the result is a feasible plan that creates a village accessible without a car.

Under current conditions, chair-lifts connect sprawled-out communities / Birkhäuser
Proposed ring of transportation nodes surrounding Verbier / Birkhäuser

The balance of clear and consistent graphic diagrams accompanied by explanations of their social, economic, environmental viability leaves the reader aching for a solution to these towns’ plights. While Pia offers a specific solution for Verbier, accompanied by a series of guidelines, these could be used to increase density for alpine communities across the globe.