The Real Deal With the Hirshhorn Bubble

The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum looks to expand in a bold new way

The Hirshhorn’s Bubble, which would be erected for two months each fall, would require about 60,000 square feet of membrane material. (Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro)
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UPDATE, June 5, 2013: The Smithsonian Institution announced today that it will not proceed with the "Bubble" project. For more details, read our latest post on Around the Mall.

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UPDATE, May 23, 2013: The Hirshhorn board of trustees was unable to reach a decisive vote on the fate of the museum's bubble project. As a result, director Richard Koshalek resigned from his position, effective later this calendar year. For more details, read our post on Around the Mall.

A little over three years ago, what looked like a droll New Yorker cartoon landed in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. An architect’s rendering depicted a glowing, baby-blue balloon bulging up through the doughnut hole of the Hirshhorn Museum, with another smaller balloon squished out to the side, under the concrete building’s skirt. The design was described as a “seasonal inflatable structure” that would house pop-up think tanks about the arts around the world, transforming the nation’s contemporary art museum into a cultural Davos on the Mall.

The brainchild of Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek and New York architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the off-kilter dome, jaunty as a beret, represented an invasion of asymmetrical architecture—even asymmetrical thinking—into America’s most symmetrical city. If buildings define the institutions they house, the inflatable (commonly called the Bubble) promised to be a daring, innovative, puckish signal that bright, unconventional minds are crackling inside. “Thinking different,” it said.

But would the design fly in a strait-laced city like Washington—where other charismatic architectural ideas had been defeated before (notably Frank Gehry’s 1999 proposal for the Corcoran Gallery of Art)? “Washington is a city that needs a jolt,” says Koshalek, “but it has a long history of rejecting unusual projects. So the uproar for and against it didn’t land in the Big Surprise Department. But this is how museums are going to have to evolve in the future.”

Koshalek is, literally, a decorated veteran of many culture wars: The gray-haired, 71-year-old director can wear the chevalier of arts and letters pin from France’s Légion d’Honneur on the lapel of his deceptively conventional, pinstriped suit. Trained as an architect at the University of Minnesota, he is a former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and former president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “He’s a flame thrower in a gray suit,” says Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who collaborated with Koshalek on several projects in L.A. “There’s a certain complacency in that series of institutions [on the Mall], a long acquiescence to history. Richard wants to put history in contemporary terms, to play it forward through modern devices, through a modern lens.”

In the past three years, Koshalek and his team have been working through the engineering problems, studying target audiences and conceptualizing the programming. Though it’s too early to detail any specific events that could take place in the Bubble, Koshalek cites the “cultural diplomacy” of Daniel Barenboim, who brings together young Palestinian and Israeli musicians in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and L.A. Philharmonic director Gustavo Dudamel, who has created orchestras for disadvantaged youth, to foster their skills and self-confidence. Artists of all disciplines, says Koshalek, can leverage their art for social purposes, and the programs should be driven by artists themselves.

But the biggest challenge remains the funding. The project attracted several large donors early on, and several members of the Hirshhorn’s board have stepped up to the plate. But fund-raising is now at a crucial point. The museum has set itself a May 31 deadline and, as this issue was going to press, Koshalek estimated that he was $5 million short of the $12.5 million goal. It’s crunch time at the Hirshhorn. “Unlike most major museums, because it’s the government, the Hirshhorn is woefully understaffed, with just one development person,” says Paul Schorr, the board treasurer. “The immediate issue is the money. We’ve got to get the funding to prove we can build, and the rest will fall into place, in my opinion.”

Leading cultural figures in America and around the world are watching intently to see if they can beat the deadline. “My sense of the Hirshhorn was that it was fixed, that it was not going anywhere other than where it already was,” says architect Gehry. “It’s refreshing to see an institution that has the optimism to see the world around it changing, and to experiment with ideas like this. Having a conference room for a think tank in an existing building would be OK, but in an exuberant, expressive space, that will get a lot more thinking in the tank.”

“The program is a great and important idea, especially in Washington,” says artist Barbara Kruger. “The visual arts are so marginalized in our country. There’s so little focus on their development and how they contribute to the possibilities of everyday life that’s different than the one we know. It’s an ambitious idea, but having this sort of site in the capital for an exchange and discussion of ideas on the arts is a very important thing to do.”


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