After a free-wheeling three-hour review, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, D.C. approved the latest design of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden from a team led by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese artist, architect, and landscape designer. The contentious revamp of the garden, which has gone through two years of review and refinement, features reconfigured outdoor sculpture galleries, a diverse and rich tree and planting design, a new central pool — and the most controversial element, stacked stone walls. The landscape design brings a contemporary Japanese sense of space and materials to the National Mall and will be only the second Asian-inspired design after the Moongate Garden found next to the National Museum of Asian Art. The new design further diversifies the multicultural experience of the National Mall, which now includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture that incorporates African design motifs.
As ASLA and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) have recently highlighted, the CFA is currently without a landscape architect for only the second time in its 112-year history. Just a few years ago, three landscape architects, academics, and designers — Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, and Liza Gilbert, ASLA — were among the commissioners. But with the new set of four commissioners appointed by the Biden-Harris administration, the CFA is also one of the most diverse in its history, with three commissioners of color, including the first woman and Asian American chair, architect Billie Tsien. The lack of representation of landscape architects on the CFA is a source of concern as the CFA frequently reviews proposals that impact historic landscapes.
Melissa Chiu, the Chinese Australian executive director of the Hirshhorn, introduced the presentation by the design team, which is led by Sugimoto and includes Felix Ade, an architect from YUN Architecture; Faye Harwell, FASLA, a landscape architect and founder of the D.C.-based firm Rhodeside & Harwell; and Alyson Steele, an architect with the D.C.-based architecture firm Quinn Evans.
Chiu argued that the design by Sugimoto and team is a “natural evolution” of the current garden, because Gordon Bunshaft, the original Hirshhorn museum and garden architect, was deeply influenced by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi and traveled to Japan, where he appreciated stacked stone walls.
Bunshaft’s Brutalist design for the sculpture garden, which opened in 1974, was without trees so became a “hot micro-climate” in the punishing Washington, D.C. summer. In 1981, landscape architect Lester Collins, also a “student of Asian design,” completed a redesign of the garden, creating smaller rooms; adding ample maples, pines, and plants; and a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the National Mall entrance to the park, an advance in accessibility years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Prior to Collins’ redesign, the central underground pathway leading from the sunken sculpture garden to the museum was closed. The passageway was viewed as dark and perhaps unsafe and was reconfigured as an educational center.
The new design includes three outdoor gallery experiences that will provide greater curatorial flexibility for the Hirshhorn, Chiu argued.
A new central gallery is a flexible garden space designed for performance art. Responding to feedback from consulting parties as part of seven Section 106 reviews, the Hirshhorn has kept the form of Bunschaft’s original rectangular pool, which mirrors a window above in the Hirshhorn facade. An additional pool has gone through many revisions.
The design team ultimately landed on a U-shaped pool immediately to the south of the original rectangular pool, separated by a new five-foot-wide central walkway and stage. The pool can drain for events, providing tiers of seating. Harwell argued that it will be a much-needed respite in D.C.’ s brutal summers, helping to cool the space.
A west gallery will provide space for newly commissioned, large-scale sculpture, with a lawn. The area can be used for “site-specific works, film festivals, and school groups,” Chiu said.
A new east gallery will create smaller rooms filled with trees that offer more intimate spaces for the Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures now found in the garden.
Responding to feedback from the CFA’s first review in 2019 that approved the general concepts, there is now a more fleshed-out landscape design. Harwell explained that the new design preserves much of Collins’ work by protecting the large elms that ring the garden and continuing to feature the pines and maples he planted. But to combat the “sameness” of the current landscape, Harwell is adding nine tree and 40 ground cover species, 70 percent of which will be native. Plants were selected for texture, and colors include whites and cremes, with hints of red. The landscape is designed for seasonal change and to create a sense of “stylized naturalism.”
New broad stone pavers, which are being evaluated in a test area of the garden, will replace the current brown squares. New handrails will be bronze, as they are now. Throughout the landscape, stormwater will be managed on-site, with the help of two underground cisterns that will capture water for irrigation.
At the south end of the garden, the passageway linking the museum with the garden will be re-opened and sheathed in mirror-like panels that bring light to the tunnel. Commissioners were universally positive about the feature, with Commissioner James McCrery calling it “brilliant.”
At the north end, where the garden meets the National Mall, the width of Bunshaft’s original entrance — 60-feet — is restored in the new design. The concrete wall that visitors now see when they enter will also be replaced by a much shorter 42-inch-high stacked stone wall. The accessible ramps at the north entrance will be moved to the west side of the garden, and a new entrance will be created on the east side.
Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore argued that ramps on just the west side of the garden don’t go far enough to create a universally accessible experience for all wheelchair users at various access points. All commissioners agreed that an additional custom-designed elevator was required and needed further study.
The perimeter concrete walls, which are now “inherently unstable,” will be rebuilt, but within the space, new stone stacked inner partition walls will change the character of the space, softening its Brutalism with a more naturalistic feel. The design team has been testing prototypes of the wall within the garden.
According to Ade and Steele, the new stacked stone walls, which will be comprised of stones sourced from a quarry in Pennsylvania, will offer better acoustics, as the walls will be rough, have open joints, and be subtly angled towards the sky, bouncing sound upwards. Chiu said the walls will be critical to supporting performance artists’ work. Ade and Steele confirmed that extensive acoustic studies were conducted to confirm they create a better sound environment than the current concrete walls, which apparently reflect sound directly back to its source.
In a video, Sugimoto said Bunshaft was inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and his goal is to simply “restructure Bunshaft’s design in spirit.” Throughout the review process, Sugimoto has vehemently defended the stacked stone walls as central to his overall design, arguing that they bring an “ancient spirit to a modern garden.” He said “the pre-modern stone stacked walls will make the modern sculpture stand out,” and through contrast will highlight their modernity.
In a break from tradition during the pandemic, organizations submitting comments on the proposals weren’t allowed to speak directly to commissioners; instead Thomas Luebke, secretary of the CFA, read summaries of feedback.
Since the sculpture garden concept design was reviewed two years ago, there have been vocal opposition to many design elements, including the walls and pool and the general shift in the character of the design away from the Brutalist landscape that is in unison with the building. One over-arching concern is the lack of consideration of Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the garden, which has recently been deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; two years ago, when the CFA first reviewed the proposed re-design, it hadn’t been.
TCLF, Committee of 100, and Docomomo have all raised concerns throughout the Section 106 review process. In a comprehensive set of comments and questions sent to the Commission, TCLF stated: “We are supportive of the revitalization efforts but have serious concerns about two design interventions that would fundamentally alter Gordon Bunshaft’s artistic vision, which was respected by landscape architect Lester Collins.” Those interventions are the new pool and stacked stone walls.
They also raised concerns about how the Smithsonian will maintain the new, more complex pool; whether enough research has been done on the acoustic benefits of the proposed walls; and why a reconfigured central galley is even needed, given the expanded western gallery.
Furthermore, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and former vice chairwoman of the CFA, sent a clarification regarding her past statements, arguing that they have been used by the Hirshhorn “without context, leading to the impression that I endorse the current designs. I do not.” She outlined that the “period of significance” in the National Register of Historic Places nomination shifted to 1981 in February 2020, after the CFA last reviewed the conceptual designs, and this should trigger an important reconsideration of the changes to Collins’ designs.
But there are also supporters. Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture OLIN, offered his opinions in an extensive memo that concludes “the project as currently proposed by Sugimoto, Harwell, et al, is far superior to what has existed adjacent to the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Mall until now, and if implemented will add a worthy layer to those that will inevitably remain embedded in the situation. The sculpture garden will become a sequential and combined work of Bunshaft, Collins, and Sugimoto, created through time, one far more interesting than any of them could have done alone.”
Perhaps only Olin’s comments were decisive in influencing the Commission, as the commissioners expressed an openness to what Sugimoto’s team proposed and didn’t call for sending the design back to the drawing board to reconsider Collins’ contributions to improving the original landscape.
Instead, the focus of the Commission was on how to rethink the accessibility, safety, and security of the sculpture garden and National Mall buildings and landscapes for the 21st century. And it seemed more than an hour of the conversation returned to these topics, as the commissioners repeatedly questioned what the experience would be like for a wheelchair user.
New Biden-appointed Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore, a transdisciplinary designer, urbanist, and program officer for the Humanities for Places program at the Andrew Mellon W. Foundation, who initiated the focus on accessibility, said the project was an “opportunity to explore what public landscapes should be and mean” for a contemporary Washington, D.C. We can expect to see a greater focus on moving universal design forward with this Commission.