A long City Paper article sets up the next few months as critical for the fate of the Bloomberg Balloon, better known as the Hirshhorn bubble, a temporary inflatable structure designed to give the cylindrical museum of modern art some high-profile event space during the more clement months of the year. The price of the bubble has risen since it was first announced in 2009—$8.5 million plus another $3 million for design and engineering fees—and there’s concern whether or not adequate funds can be secured to build, inflate, store and program the bubble.
Kriston Capps’s article touches on some of the criticism leveled at the project and by extension at the Hirshhorn’s director, Richard Koshalek, who conjured the idea and has spent much of his tenure at the museum championing it. Bubble skeptics fear it is a distraction from the core mission of the museum; too expensive and potentially unfeasible; that Washington is already awash desultory talk and dispiriting pseudo-intellectualism; that the Hirshhorn already has a theater space for such things; and that this is yet more flash and sizzle at a moment when the art world needs substance.
I acknowledge the grain of truth in every one of those fears, especially the notion that we have so much dull talk in Washington already that we’d be foolish to create yet another platform for verbal self-indulgence. What happens inside the bubble will be the ultimate test of whether the bubble was a good idea.
But I should say I also like the bubble very much as a form, as a thing caught somewhere between the practicality of architecture and the playfulness of art. The art world is nothing if not a bubble, an economy built on speculation, filled with puffed up people speaking a bubble language, lightweight, easily punctured and sometimes delightfully effervescent.
Speculating on large-scale architectural additions has driven the museum world for decades now, leaving some institutions in worse straits and saddled with ungainly appendages that add only to the service side—shops, cafes, offices—of the museum experience. But additions can also energize an institution, giving donors something tangible to invest in and attracting attention from the public. It’s a risk, but not without rewards, and it’s easy to see why Koshalek would want to take that risk. He has very self-consciously (and successfully) worked to make the Hirshhorn a center of attention and activity.
The bubble feels almost like a coy comment on the museum-addition game, a relatively inexpensive way of attracting attention and expanding event space without actually using any bricks and mortar. It might also serve a purpose well beyond the Hirshhorn’s desire for some sizzle on the mall. If the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro can solve the technical and material challenges of making the bubble work in an elegant and cost effective way, then bubble technology might be branded and offered to other institutions. I wouldn’t mind a small bubble in my own backyard, come to think of it. There’s never enough space for a party.