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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“I’ve worked with Richard in the past and he’s always brought people together in a way that’s fomented lively discussions on the arts,” says the sculptor Richard Serra. “There’s always a need for bringing people together to discuss the arts, and in America there’s a lack of support for doing that.”

“This is very much at the forefront of a trend today of temporary cultural spaces, which are very appropriate and cost saving—the Bubble would cost a fraction of the price of a new wing,” says Victoria Newhouse, an architectural historian whose most recent book, Site and Sound, raises the idea of alternative spaces. She predicts they will be a major new phenomenon. “The Bubble is innovative and fun, funky and smart, and it serves its purpose. One of the problems with ivory-tower institutions is that until recently they’ve divorced themselves from the real world, and it’s clear that today’s younger generation has rejected the formality of traditional public spaces. We’re in the process of revolutionary changes for museums, libraries and concert halls. The Bubble is completely in line with the new trend. I think Koshalek is a visionary.”

The stakes for Washington, D.C. itself are also high, according to Kriston Capps, the D.C.-based senior editor of Architect magazine, who initially criticized the proposal writing that “a splashy lecture hall will distract from the Hirsh­horn’s central scholarly mission as a contemporary art museum.” He has since recanted: “My position has evolved. The National Mall is close to built up and something new is very exciting—and it [the Bubble] fits beautifully with the existing architecture.” But the significance of the project is even larger than its design. “Washington can’t afford the defeat of a relatively low-cost project like this. It would be a blow to other progressive projects here.” Conversely, its success could spur new architectural and cultural creations the city needs.

“The nature and form of the design is a direct response to the Hirshhorn itself and its ‘dome’ is a clever response to the Washington federal context and history,” says Kurt Andersen, novelist, host of public radio’s “Studio 360” and Time’s former architecture and design critic. “Buildings in Washington want to seem ancient and eternal; the Bubble means to look brand-new and be evanescent, seasonal. With the Bubble, Washington has a chance to prove that it has a sense of humor and an appreciation for poetry and the eccentric and fun. It’s an inexpensive way for Washington to say to America and the world that it’s grown-up and risk-taking enough to be a place that really believes in contemporary art specifically and innovation generally. If it happens, my reaction as a New Yorker will be envy. But as a citizen, it will be pride.”


Whether made out of soap or a high-tech membrane, bubbles are dynamic: They move. “Building the Bubble is not like pitching a normal tent, or even an inflatable structure over a tennis court,” says DS+R principal design architect Liz Diller, a boyish-looking 59-year-old who wears her cropped hair with an unruly cowlick erupting over her brow, off-center. The membrane is not just a roof over the hole in the doughnut but instead a continuous, single-surface membrane that bulges out of the top and bottom, forming a room within the courtyard of the existing museum, capturing an additional 12,000 square feet of space.

The museum hired German engineers who specialize in tensile structures to analyze the design. An increase in the wind outside, for example, would increase pressure inside, with structural consequences: The engineers had to stiffen the fabric to withstand fluctuations in air pressure. On computers, the engineers produced structural clouds that showed how much pressure the air would exert at any spot, revealing the stresses at every point in space.

“Even though the simplest, most efficient form is a sphere, the goal was to produce an asymmetrical structure, so we had to fight physics to find the right form,” says David Allin, a project leader for DS+R. And asymmetry was already built into the design of the museum by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the original architect who created subtle, off-centered geometries in the courtyard of the otherwise circular building. At its core, the modernist Bunshaft design is not classical.

The engineers produced a tome of rigorous calculations, charts and diagrams, including beautiful computer sketches that show the Bubble girdled in several spots by cables that tether it invisibly in place, allowing movement within dimensional limits. The membrane never touches the drum, and hidden attachments to the support structure and to a ring inside the drum don’t show on the historic structure. “Fortunately the building is heavy and has excess capacity to take the load of the Bubble,” says Allin.

One of the most elusive tasks was finding a material that would be sufficiently flexible, durable and translucent. The Bubble had to be foldable and luminous. The architects worked through several options, starting with a resilient, translucent Teflon fabric, which did not prove strong enough, and then a silicon-coated glass fiber, which wasn’t resilient enough under folding, and then a polyvinyl chloride-coated polyester fabric typically used for tensile structures, which was not sufficiently translucent. Modifying the PVC technology, however, resulted in greater translucency, offering a solution that also stood up in computer-model stress tests for earthquakes and hurricane force winds.


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