The Hirshhorn Museum's inflationary measure: A $5 million balloon expansion

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden needed to be energized. And Richard Koshalek, the director since April at the modern and contemporary art museum, had a long list of ideas to do just that.

Among the things his institution needed, Koshalek decided, was an extra space, one that would provide a conversational tent for the dialogue he wanted to build with new partners and artists. And so, voilĂ : On the drawing board is a 145-foot-tall temporary inflatable structure that's intended to sit in the concrete-bound courtyard and balloon through the top of the building. If the museum decides to go forward with it, the structure will be installed in May and October, starting in 2011.

"We have a very strong interest in curating public space," Koshalek said on Tuesday afternoon. "We want to turn the symbolic center of the Hirshhorn into a center for international dialogue. The issues are going to be very broad, so we can attract a pluralistic audience. It's also going to be based on very strong partnerships and collaborative efforts."

The design for the structure, by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro, brought some strong reactions to its innovation and playfulness. Made of a strong vinyl material, it will protrude like a mushroom, providing a strong contrast to the doughnut-shaped main building.

Koshalek would prefer that the public think of the structure as a dome. "The dome is not a perfect dome. It is a metaphor for 'Sleeping Muse' by Constantin Brancusi," he said, referring to the Romanian artist's bronze sculpture of a head lying on its side. "You know, you are not a distinguished institution unless you have a dome, like the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, St. Peter's in Rome."

Alexander Dumbadze, a professor of contemporary art history at George Washington University, said the design is a "new kind of public space." Dumbadze is enamored of the original architecture and feels that the temporary structure would not detract from it. "I like this way of engaging the public. It's a new way of approaching the public on the Mall," he said.

Judy Scott Feldman, the director of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a watchdog group, said she is excited by the design. "It is an interesting, exciting, visually fun innovation. It doesn't alter the integrity of the historic Mall," said Feldman, whose group has issued its own plan for 21st-century uses of the Mall. "We have here in microcosm the forward-looking, democratic and culturally enriching attitude that we need on our grand civic space."

Sidney Lawrence, a local artist and former public affairs director at the Hirshhorn, predicted that the temporary structure would dispel the reputation of "remoteness" that has followed the Hirshhorn for decades. The balloon concept, he said, has "the flash that people look for" today. "Just visually, it's nuts. I love it. . . . I love the flash of it. It's funky. It's great."

Lawrence is a fan of the Hirshhorn's concrete doughnut. "People trash it, but I think it's a great work of art," he said. Then again, he also believes that contact with the air and space of the courtyard is crucial to the success of the original Hirshhorn building. When the new bubble is inflated, will the museum itself become a dark and noisy place?

Diller Scofidio and Renfro is no stranger to cultural institutions, having developed plans for New York's Dia Center and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. The New York-based team was also the lead firm for the recent redevelopment of Lincoln Center.

"We are thrilled with what Diller Scofidio and Renfro have designed," said Reynold Levy, Lincoln Center's president. "They have reunited Lincoln Center with the city of New York. They opened it up so it became porous, with so many places to hang out." Levy said he like the whimsical nature of the firm's plans for the Hirshhorn. "Temporary structures are designed to break through the clutter and step out in a bold and fun way."

The estimated budget for the inflatable addition is about $5 million, said Koshalek, and the museum plans to raise an additional $5 million for storage and programs. The plan has been presented to the Hirshhorn's board and the Smithsonian Board of Regents, and the staff is planning informational meetings with the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Since the structure is a temporary addition, however, final approval from those panels is not required.

Other physical improvements are in the works for the Hirshhorn, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2014, including a new vision for the bookstore by video artist Doug Aitken, and a new classroom in the lobby.

But right now the focus is on the inflatable. The structure will be blue, which is apparently the preferred civic color against Washington's limestone and marble. When the Washington Monument was restored in 1997, architect Michael Graves constructed a blue curtain to cover the ongoing work.

Staff writer Blake Gopnik contributed to this report.

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