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Blake Gopnik on Hirshhorn Museum bookstore redesign by Doug Aitken

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; C01

The lobby of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum ought to be one of this city's great places to see and think about contemporary art: soaring ceilings, tons of light and a prime location. But for many years now, the first thing visitors to the Hirshhorn have encountered has been commerce. The focus of the lobby has been a little glass pavilion where the museum sells its books and merchandise. That is due to change.

As part of his oft-declared desire to "curate" the Hirshhorn's public spaces, Director Richard Koshalek and his staff have invited Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken to rethink the museum's shop. "As soon as you engage the museum, it shouldn't be a commercial experience, or a typical government- or corporate-lobby experience, but an educational experience," Koshalek says.

Work on the project is still barely at the planning stage, but so far the idea is to move the bookstore into the basement, elbowing out a scruffy old cloakroom but also the Hirshhorn's notably successful "Black Box" video gallery. (Let's hope that project finds a new home.)

As he thought about what books mean to him, Aitken says, "enlightenment" and "illumination" struck him as the core ideas. That led him to ask, "How can you make architecture out of light?"

His answer was to call for a broad shaft to be pierced through the museum's Independence Avenue forecourt, bringing natural illumination into the "really oppressive basement" that he found when he first got a look at the site he'd be working with -- "a marginal area that just needed an extreme intervention." (Aitken is hoping to launch his revamped space in fall 2011, although that seems optimistic for a government-administered project.)

A room with a view

Aitken's preliminary design calls for the shaft, and maybe much of the store itself, to be lined with angled slices of mirror, giving visitors a vertiginous, kaleidoscopic experience in "a room without any corners." Looking up the angled light-well, visitors should see the heavens reflected and fractured on all sides -- the "blue-sky" ideas of art brought down to earth, or even under it.

Aitken hopes his light-filled basement space will function as "a personal sanctuary, where you can get lost." This is hardly the model most museums use when considering their shops. When the Museum of Modern Art opened its new building in New York a few years ago, pride of place by the front doors was given over to a perfectly unartful retail space, without a hint of sanctuary. That's the play the bookstore gets in almost any new museum you could name.

"I see it as our future Peacock Room," Koshalek says, referring to the great interior designed by James McNeill Whistler in 1877, and now one of the treasures of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art. Koshalek says he wants to get artists, "the alchemists of the future," involved in every project the museum undertakes.

Aitken's bookstore is projected to cost between $500,000 and $750,000 and will be funded largely from the Hirshhorn's acquisition budget. It will also be accessioned into the museum's holdings as a work of art. Of course, that means the design had better be as good and substantial as other work the same money could have bought.

More than a bookstore

Aitken, 41, is best known for his videos, which are stylish, cryptic and full of content. One of the most memorable works at 2008's Carnegie International, a prestigious group show held every few years in Pittsburgh, was a video that Aitken projected onto the Carnegie Museum's facade. It showed wild animals nervously pacing the floor of banal hotel rooms, and spoke to the troubled encounters that humans and nature are having these days.

Aitken's project for the Hirshhorn shop, despite the metaphors of enlightenment built into it, is likely to be more straightforwardly perceptual and experiential than those earlier pieces. It should look good and give pleasure, without demanding too much thought -- framing the idea-filled books, rather than competing with them. Those modest artistic ambitions may suit what will remain a retail space, though Aitken talks about it as being as much a reading room as a bookstore, and expresses reservations about the tchotchkes in the current shop.

Koshalek is comfortable with that. "He sees it as more than a bookstore, and so do we," he says, mentioning how Aitken approached the Hirshhorn's educators about expanding the mandate of his project to welcome some of their activities. At very least, the director says, the new artist-designed shop will "go beyond the experience at Amazon.com -- and it could be a model for a lot of other bookstores."

In recent years, bottom lines and business sense seem to be replacing art and education as the focus of many museums' attention. The displacement (even relegation) of the Hirshhorn's retail venue, and its rethinking by a prominent artist, should send the message that, in this institution at least, art and ideas come first.

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