By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; C01
If it gets built, it will be a whazzat sort of building. Proposals to retrofit the Hirshhorn Museum with an inflatable blue meeting space call for an egglike balloon rising out of the cylindrical museum's center courtyard, and a goiterlike protrusion at ground level. The contrast between the stern and appealing modernist lines of Gordon Bunshaft's 1974 building and the new addition -- designed by the New York-based trendy firm of the moment, Diller Scofidio and Renfro -- is likely to be thrilling, baffling, confusing and perhaps even troubling.
You can hear perplexed tourists parsing its shape and purpose already. What is that?
Diller Scofidio and Renfro recently completed the highly praised High Line project in New York, a ribbon of garden and walkway that repurposes an old elevated railway on Manhattan's West Side. DSR also had stunning success with a redesign of Alice Tully Hall at New York's Lincoln Center, opening up the hall and integrating it with street life. And the firm's "Blur Building," a 2002 Swiss Expo pavilion that used water vapor to create a foglike space in the middle of a lake, is one of the iconic experimental buildings of the decade.
DSR knows how to turn heads, but Washington is a city in which all the forces, architecturally, are arrayed to blunt flamboyant buildings. The firm was also in the running to design the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, and submitted the most daring design. DSR didn't win that commission, which ultimately went to a team fronted by architect David Adjaye.
"We are still really sad about the loss of the African American museum, but we hope to do some more things in Washington," says Elizabeth Diller, one of the firm's principals. Planning for the blue balloon addition to the Hirshhorn is still early, but Diller says the firm has already undertaken an engineering feasibility study, and hopes to have the balloon ready in 2011. The structure would hold 600 to 1,000 people, and be used for lectures, discussions, performing arts events and movies.
The $5 million proposal is a relatively modest first foray into Washington architecture for DSR. And as a temporary structure, the balloon does an end run around a complicated and often vitiating design review process (which is already beginning to dog Adjaye's design, if skepticism expressed at a recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting is any indication).
But while current plans call for use of the balloon during the more clement months, temporary structures can have a powerful impact on the cityscape (think of the all-but-permanent presence of security retrofits that have gummed up so many local buildings). And if a precedent is established to build temporary structures so as to have greater aesthetic freedom (and less bureaucratic interference), then they may well proliferate, with further impact on the look and design of the city. While the design proposed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro is exciting, it would be even better to have DSR working in D.C. through the usual processes, so as to challenge Washington conservatism openly and publicly, and perhaps reform it along the way.
Architecturally, DSR faces two challenges. The first is to create a space that doesn't feel like a folly, like a punch line to some joke about Bunshaft's oversize toilet seat. "We kind of love-hate the building," Diller says. "There is part of me, my generation, that is very attached to this period of building." The temporary structure is being designed to "touch the building lightly in a way that wouldn't leave a residue."
Initial ideas include using the balloon as a public forum, a place for discussions and interactive social exchange on contemporary cultural issues. Which raises questions about how much such a space is needed, and whether it could be used productively.
Washington is by no means devoid of places where people can convene and talk through issues. What it lacks isn't architectural encasing for that activity, but a more fundamental architecture of productive discourse. The problem with a new public forum in Washington is elemental: We do an exceptionally bad job of talking things through in public already; what will change when this space is in operation?
That, however, is a problem not likely to be solved by architects.