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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“Richard wanted an event space for these conversations, for alternative programming,” says Diller. “An in-the-round structure made a lot of sense rather than a directional auditorium, because it doesn’t have a front and a back, so people engage more easily in a discussion. For us, the Mall is an inspiring spot, the symbolic place in the country for freedom of expression. But the buildings are fortresses, including the Hirshhorn, with its closed, defensive relationship to the Mall. We thought of it as inhaling the space of the Mall—and its democracy—into the hall. We wanted to create a building out of air. If you did the Bubble in New York, it would feel far less radical. The stately and sober institutions that line the Mall speak to a sense of authority, and this project plays into that, and in our mind invokes a more participatory democracy.”

“The strength of the Bubble is its spontaneity, and its respect for the original building,” says Gehry. “It’s like a separate work of art collaborating with the building. I like to see the feeling of spontaneity in architecture, achieving that sense of immediacy that you see in a Rembrandt that’s lasted hundreds of years. How do you get that in architecture? How do you do it with serious cultural buildings? I think they’re thinking closer to an artist, making an intervention in another architect’s work, like when Claes Oldenburg did a pair of binoculars in one of my buildings.”


Despite all the attention that the Bubble has received, little has been said about what might happen inside it. Koshalek’s idea is to create programming that will capitalize on the Hirshhorn’s location, to make the museum the nation’s cultural forum. “There are an estimated 400 think tanks, hundreds of embassies, scores of museums and research organizations, private and public, in Washington,” he says, “and here comes the first think tank that deals with arts and culture.”

Anticipating the program, Ann Hamilton, a large-scale multimedia artist who sits on the board, believes that it would be as important as the structure. “I do think the space is really brilliant, but the uniqueness of the architectural structure needs an equally unique curatorial program. Spaces can coax new kinds of thinking and create different experiences. But if it’s not met with an equally innovative curatorial program, the space alone can’t succeed. I’m looking forward to a conversation between a curator and the architects.”

To research the possible programming, Koshalek has recently attended the TED conference, the World Economic Forum, the Doha Climate Change Conference, an Aspen Institute art and design panel, and the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, among others, and wants to link the Hirshhorn to a larger world of ideas. “We will add more works to the collection and continue to stage one exhibition after another, but the museum has another responsibility, to engage the public with material that’s real and challenging,” he says. “Instead of following the established museum parade toward entertainment and blockbuster shows, the Hirshhorn is gearing toward research and dialogue complementing its exhibitions. Education has never distracted from an exhibition program.” The Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn’s parent organization, has pledged a ten-year grant of $4 million for operating the program, at $400,000 a year.

“The Bubble will become a center,” says the board’s acting chair, Constance Caplan. “It’s the center of the Hirshhorn, and it will serve the entire Smithsonian of which it’s a part, and lead to a greater [intramural] collaboration. The museums that are changing or responding to new needs are the ones that are going to grow. Dance, music, film, performance were not traditionally the purview of museums, but they are now. With this structure, the Hirshhorn will be able to look at what the arts mean in contemporary life and civic life.”

There are some, however, who are uncomfortable with the idea of a 21st- century art center. “The majority of the board support it, but of course there are those who are purists who think an art museum should just be an art museum,” says Schorr, the board treasurer. “But that’s not what museums are doing these days.”

The architects have designed the interior spaces for great flexibility to be reconfigured in different ways, with ring seating, couches and a movable stage. “We believe that space and atmosphere can affect the discussion,” says Diller. “A building like the Bubble is physically animate. It appears and disappears. Our tendency as architects is to control things, but here, it’s an open system, and has a dynamic effect on the people inside.”

“It’s immersive,” says Caplan. “You’ll have the feeling when you go in, that it’s different than any building you’ve been in before, that your horizons are going to change. You’ve got all these traditional buildings around, but here it’s going to speak to our interest in something different. There’s a sense of playfulness about it, excitement. You know that it will affect you, but not how.”


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