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How a rock wall and pool of water have thrown a wrench into the redesign of Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden at sunset. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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The rhetoric around the Smithsonian’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden is officially heated.

Preservationists, who worry about plans to evolve the 1981 brutalist design into “a 21st century sculpture garden,” are sending regular email blasts. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece was headlined “Paving Paradise.” There were reports last month, amplified by a group opposed to key elements of the project, that artist and designer Hiroshi Sugimoto had threatened to quit. Sugimoto had told the Art Newspaper that he would resign if the museum did not accept a “key part of the redesign.” But that was in the context of an article in which he stressed his collaborative role with his predecessors on a garden that has evolved over the years.

Meanwhile, the Hirshhorn remains steadfast that only by executing Sugimoto’s vision can it hope to engage new audiences, attract visitors from the nearby Mall, and be a forward-looking museum committed to performance art and contemporary forms of artistic expression.

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The controversy is now focused on two details: the materials used for reconstructing an interior partition wall, and the addition of another water feature and a platform or performance stage at the center of the garden, which would cut into existing green space. On Tuesday, the Smithsonian announced that it would go forward with a revised plan that includes Sugimoto’s stacked-stone wall and the new stage and reflecting pool, despite protests from preservation and design organizations including the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. Those protests are likely to continue as the project awaits final approvals from design oversight bodies, including the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, sometime later this year.

Lost in the rancor is the simple fact that Sugimoto’s design would make substantial improvements to the garden, which wants care and renovation. Foremost among its merits is the reopening of an underground passage between the garden, which juts out into the Mall, and the museum across the street, a drum-shaped concrete structure designed by Gordon Bunshaft and finished in 1974. This long-shuttered passage under Jefferson Drive SW could attract visitors off the Mall into the main museum building and entice museum visitors to include the sculpture garden in their visit.

Leaders of the Hirshhorn have long felt that the building’s original design doesn’t include enough public space for lectures, performances and other gatherings. Plans for a temporary “bubble structure” designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (designers of New York’s High Line park) — an inflatable tent on the building’s “doughnut hole” inner plaza — were floated more than a decade ago but never gained support within the Smithsonian bureaucracy. Sugimoto’s stage is an attempt to salvage some of the bubble’s possibilities on a smaller scale and drive traffic to the sculpture garden, which the museum considers an underutilized asset.

No one debates that the garden needs attention. Bunshaft’s original design was a barren plaza, rich in geometry but poor in foliage and shade. That garden was redesigned in 1981 by Lester Collins, who created what feels like an outdoor gallery of rooms and corridors to display the Hirshhorn’s collection of modern bronzes and mid-century sculpture. It is beloved by locals, for whom it offers a leafy respite from the sun-drenched and monumentally scaled Mall. But that same sense of escape and seclusion means it doesn’t function as the museum would like it to: as an inviting front door to entice passersby.

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Most of the proposed changes deal with the essential problems sensibly, including widening the entry on the Mall side and lowering some of the walls that block a clear view into the garden. But Sugimoto’s plans to replace a long, concrete interior along the east-west axis with a stone wall, and to convert the center of the garden into a flexible space with a stage and a new water feature next to the modest, rectangular one designed by Bunshaft, have been the central sticking points.

This is a debate in which everyone is a little right, and a little wrong, and this kind of argument can take a deceptively large toll on collective goodwill. The Cultural Landscape Foundation is an enormously valuable group when it comes to educating the public about mid-century landscape design. Its website is an important resource, with interviews, oral histories and designer profiles. But the group tends to go very quickly to Defcon One when it comes to advocacy, and it can be shrill. It cast the Smithsonian’s recent decision to move forward in Trumpian terms with this headline: “Have Hirshhorn Representatives Appropriated ‘Build the Wall’?” Suggesting equivalence between the Smithsonian’s supposed intransigence and Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry is unfair.

The foundation has also characterized Sugimoto as my-way-or-the-highway inflexible, when he has made compromises and asserted only certain red lines — like the stone wall — that he feels are essential to his vision. He is a serious and important artist, and every serious artist has a breaking point when people begin chiseling away at his or her vision.

Opponents of both the wall and the water feature are, however, correct. These elements won’t make the garden better and aren’t really necessary. Given this city’s oversupply of fountains and water features that are balky, underperforming or in total disrepair, building another one to frame a performance stage makes little sense. And a water feature that is designed to be regularly drained and refilled before and after performances is more complicated than it may seem and is almost certainly going to be problematic to maintain. Performances could be staged in the garden without this addition, and without changing the geometry of the existing fountain, which neatly echoes a long rectangular window cut into the main building across the street.

And adding a stacked stone wall would indeed feel a little odd in a brutalist garden framed by concrete. If anyone can build a beautiful, Zen-garden wall, Sugimoto can. But it will always feel a little out of place at the Hirshhorn, more like a long piece of sculpture than a backdrop for art and performance.

There are often important issues at stake in seemingly small-bore design disputes, and no change to the design of anything in the monumental core of Washington is trivial. But these conflicts often fritter away energies that could be better used to enhance public life. If the public finds it odd or tedious or even absurd that so much anger is spilled over a rock wall and a small pool of water in downtown Washington, they may be less willing to engage with more substantial design disputes in the future. While local activists engaged New York newspapers to fret over a rock or cement wall in Washington, the Paul Rudolph-designed brutalist Burroughs Wellcome building in North Carolina was torn down earlier this year — a tragic loss on a scale that dwarfs the Hirshhorn proposals.

Meanwhile, so much of Washington is in glaring and urgent need of design love, including schools, roads, bridges, dangerous intersections and bike lanes. When a design dispute comes to seem like a playground for the privileged, pitting the fine points of preservation against the integrity of a contemporary artist’s vision, priorities may seem out of whack.

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But it is possible to have it both ways, to argue the minutiae of issues like the Hirshhorn sculpture garden while preserving the limited resource of authentic public engagement. That is best done by designating a team of professional design experts to weigh the issues and render an authoritative decision.

For decades, we have had such a team, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has, since 1910, been giving invaluable guidance on these small but critical issues of design. Today, unfortunately, that body can’t necessarily be trusted. Its chairman, Justin Shubow, has railed repeatedly and absurdly against brutalism, the style in which Bunshaft designed the Hirshhorn and its garden. All seven members of the all-White, all-male commission were appointed by Trump, who repeatedly expressed the ethical opposite of the fundamental vision the Hirshhorn wants to realize through this project: a broader, more diverse, more intellectually engaged audience.

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So, we can’t just say, leave it to the CFA. The best that can come of this is compromise, and a wake-up call to the Biden administration. The compromise is easy: Lose the water feature, keep the existing grass, design a temporary stage and let Sugimoto go ahead with his stacked stone wall. Then people who care about the design of the nation’s capital should implore President Biden to remove the current CFA members and appoint a body of serious professionals, with vision and design competence, and the civic-minded temperament to wade through these issues and make decisions in the best interests of everyone.

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