For many years it would have been difficult to imagine a building less in favour than the Hirshhorn Museum. The concrete tub on Washington DC’s National Mall was often derided as a disaster, a relic from the Brutalist years; a work by architect Gordon Bunshaft, who was once responsible for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s best and most refined buildings but was, by then, past a prime which saw him tailor exquisitely refined corporate landmarks such as New York’s 1952 Lever House.
How things change. Today the Hirshhorn is seen as a sculptural object in its own right, a hardy survivor from an architectural era which has lost so many monuments. Its sculpture garden, though, has fared less well. Its opening in 1974 coincided with the capital’s lowest ebb. A city still scarred and blackened from the riots sparked by the death of Martin Luther King, the downtown was emptying of wealthier, whiter residents, neglected, almost war-torn. Bunshaft’s conception of a radical public openness and a subterranean entrance was marred by a perception of urban threat, an underpass of the type that was held to represent everything bad about modern architecture. Now all that is set to change. The lost entrance and connection to the Mall is being revived and one of the city’s great free public spaces is coming back.
Architect, photographer and artist Hiroshi Sugimoto has already intervened into the building with a well-received lobby design completed in 2018 and he was chosen earlier this year to redesign the sculpture garden and entrance. I speak to the architect from his studio in Tokyo and ask him, frankly, what he thinks of the Hirshhorn, a building that had been controversial for so long.
“Over 20 years,” he says, “as an artist, I’ve had huge shows in major museums all over the world. I became a user of the spaces designed by star architects. I even published a book, in Japanese, in which I gave a score to all these buildings. So [Frank] Gehry in Bilbao scored very low as there was limited space to make my art look . . . beautiful. [Daniel] Libeskind in Ontario, nobody there knew how to turn the lights on. The opening was a nightmare. But I had a show at the Hirshhorn in 2006. I gave Bunshaft five stars.”
What exactly is it that makes it work? “The space might not be friendly for all artists,” he replies, “but for me it was a new challenge, not just a white cube. I had to hang the seascapes along the long, curved wall. Most architects think their spaces look better without any art.
“When the lobby redesign was completed,” Sugimoto says, “I thought that was the end of my job. Then Melissa [Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn] asked me to redesign the garden and I thought it was a joke. If I’d have known how huge this job was, dealing