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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The next challenge was figuring out the intricate choreography necessary to put the Bubble up and take it down. The architects’ sketches of the process recall detailed Renaissance drawings of obelisks being lifted onto barges in Egypt and then, after traveling thousands of miles, being hoisted onto pedestals in the plazas of Rome. The New York architects consulted with Swiss contractors who specialized in rigging gondolas for funiculars. “The prefabricated tent,” explains Diller, “comes off a truck as a continuous membrane to be unrolled and then hoisted up with mechanical winches, and dropped within the top rings and then inflated with a positive infusion of air from the building’s own air handling system. The flat membrane fills and then pops open on the outside into a dome.” Staging the erection will take a week, but inflating the balloon only a half-hour. The whole operation is virtually a performance piece, ending in the climactic moment when it all snaps into place.


In his many incarnations, Richard Koshalek has always pushed the institutions he has headed to move beyond the white walls of the gallery. In Los Angeles, he arranged guerrilla performances on loading docks. In Pasadena, he took part of the Art Center College program off its ivory tower suburban hill and planted it in the city’s urban grid, where it was accessible to public transportation.

At the Hirshhorn, Koshalek faced new challenges. New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the Hirshhorn a “bunker” when it opened in 1974, and 92-year- old Olga Hirshhorn, widow of the collection’s founder, Joseph H. Hirsh-horn, says that the museum had always struggled to find more space in its closed, three-story doughnut form.

Last year, Koshalek magically turned the institution inside out by commissioning multimedia artist Doug Aitkin to create a 360-degree film, Song 1, that was projected on the museum’s cylindrical exterior walls. The event extroverted the museum and activated public space outside—a little like a drive-in theater, only on the Mall. Later in the year, Koshalek invited word artist Barbara Kruger inside to appropriate the walls, ceilings and floor of the basement lobby, so that now people who visit the museum are entirely enveloped by her words and ideas.

Suddenly the distinguished but staid museum was alive, and even cool and contemporary. Attendance skyrocketed from 600,000 annual visitors to over a million. “Richard is opening the institution up,” says Gehry. “He’s living in his time, trying things, avoiding the tendency to head an aloof institution.”

Early in his tenure as Hirshhorn director, Koshalek met with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro at its offices in New York to discuss building an alternative “creative” space that would act like an open loft. He wanted to spark a dynamic relationship between audience and presenter, “an anti-auditorium” that could handle large crowds in shifting, democratic, multitasking configurations. Multiple screens would face in multiple directions, in the round. Digital technology would foster global reach.

At a meeting in late 2009, around a conference table in their offices, the architects, Koshalek and his Hirshhorn associate Erica Clark held a jam session about what form the anti-auditorium should take. A neat white Styrofoam model of the Hirshhorn was sitting on the conference table. The architects presented about 20 ideas, but at a certain point, Diller produced a clear plastic dry cleaner bag, passed it through the hole at the center of the model and started blowing into it. The plastic inflated into a dome. “That’s it!” exclaimed Koshalek, in a eureka moment.

“It was a beautiful way to develop architecture with a client,” says Allin. “No preconceptions, nothing set. We responded to him, and he to us.”

The concept didn’t come out of thin air. For architects, inflatable structures are a legacy dating from the 1960s and ’70s, when artists, architects and designers made inflatable cookbooks, furniture and environments. Concrete was seen as “establishment,” and inflatables, as countercultural. Diller and her partner Ricardo Scofidio were players in this milieu, having spent decades in New York’s downtown art bohemia blurring art and architecture, cultivating a conceptual approach to architecture rather than a formal one, causing people to think rather than just look. In their Blur Building for Swiss Expo 2002, for example, the architects built a misting structure permanently surrounded by a cloud. Early in his career, Scofidio had designed performance stages for rock bands, including Pink Floyd, out of scaffolds, creating extraordinary Tinkertoy structures, and here he was channeling the ghosts of rock concerts past to the National Mall.


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