The project, which is still in the planning phase and has a budget yet to be determined, aims to improve the accessibility of museums; update infrastructure, including bathrooms and elevators; and create more space for art, programming, and education. It comes at a time of significant changes to the Hirshhorn, which has just replaced the building’s concrete facade and roof. In November, the museum will break ground on the long-awaited and much-discussed revamp of its sculpture garden, which is expected to take 18 to 24 months. This third and final revitalization phase begins after the garden has been reopened.
“This is a transformative moment for the museum because we’re almost 50 years old and we haven’t done any major work on our campus in decades,” Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, told The Post. “It’s really about redesigning the museum for the 21st century.”
They don’t stray too far from the past. The distinctive 1974 Brutalist-style building is “built with a certain philosophy that we still hold dear,” said Chris Cooper, design partner at SOM. Given the firm’s close ties to Bunshaft and Selldorf’s expertise in museum design, “we didn’t feel like we’d be scared of the building, but we felt we could come and work on making it into the future.” project,” he said.
Conversations about what it means to be a 21st-century museum typically raise philosophical questions about ethical collecting, diverse representation, and the stories museums tell. Physical matters — where bathrooms are located, how easy it is to enter the museum, the height limit for art — might not sound all that interesting. Still, they can have a big impact on which visitors and which artworks end up inside.
A free modern and contemporary art museum on the National Mall, the Hirshhorn is a rare place where accessibility meets avant-garde, a museum that draws art lovers and lost tourists alike. In a way, it already reflects what a museum created for that time can look like. These physical updates follow record-breaking shows, including the 2017’s “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” and 2019 Raphael Lozano Hammer: Pulse, reflecting contemporary art’s potential for broad appeal. With the revamp, the Hirshhorn hopes to attract more young visitors by making the museum – sometimes compared to a fortress – warm and approachable.
“The most important thing is to connect with people and do it in a way that makes you feel welcome at every turn,” says Annabelle Selldorf, architect and founder of Selldorf Architects.
For Selldorf, this means lowering entry barriers. She notes that the museum currently has revolving door entrances, a small public elevator, and narrow escalators—all of which could be difficult for people with disabilities to navigate. “We want to think of it holistically,” she says, expressing her hope that “if possible, everyone will have the same experiences.”
Though there are years of work and decisions ahead, Chiu says their top priority right now is the mall-facing entrance to the mall, which will welcome more visitors once the sculpture garden is complete. It’s crucial, she says, because “it’s that first encounter with the museum. For most visitors it is their first time visiting a modern and contemporary art museum.”
Chiu and the designers envision a seamless, artistic journey from the National Mall through the sculpture garden to the plaza beneath the building and into the museum’s glass lobby and interior galleries. Inside, they hope to strike a balance between experiencing the sprawling, sweeping architecture and retreating into more intimate spaces. While the circular shape makes it easier to move forward through the museum, they’re working to extend what museum professionals call “dwell time” in places like the Lerner Room, which overlooks the Mall. “We need to think about how we can give more of our building to the public?” Chiu said.
Designed in the 1960s to house the art collection of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, an oil and mining magnate. The Hirshhorn’s donut-shaped concrete building drew the kind of skepticism that comes with being a little ahead of its time. Critics accused him of “pompous monumentality” and “environmental abuse”. They berated its rounded concrete facade and compared it to an “air raid shelter” and a “mutilated monument”.
Over the years, however, the museum’s idiosyncratic circular shape has proven to be a strength, inspiring installations appropriate for the circular – such as Andy Warhol: Shadows, where paintings in the series stretched uninterrupted for 450 feet, and Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge. His heavy concrete cylinder has become his trademark. “I’m always amazed at how it attracts attention,” says Selldorf. “It’s magnetic.”
Influenced by the love of sculpture shared by Bunshaft and Hirshhorn, known for his collection of Henry Moores and Auguste Rodins, the museum functions as a three-dimensional work of art. “It is an important building because it is a sculpture itself. And so there’s a great sensitivity to preserving the essence of the building,” Cooper said.
Cooper points to the criss-crossing escalators, the glass lobby, and the contrast between the largely windowless exterior and the light-filled interior as defining elements of the Hirshhorn. Most importantly, Cooper and Selldorf say that the Hirshhorn is a simple geometric idea: a cylinder floating over a square. “It’s pretty elementary and in a really fantastic way because everyone understands that,” says Selldorf. “You can see that from afar and immediately understand the spatial arrangement.”
As they decide on changes, Chiu says they will hold public gatherings like they did with the sculpture garden.
Since its inception, the Hirshhorn has expanded its mission to include contemporary and modern art. Chiu looks forward to offering large scale works and new, innovative artistic mediums. “There are all these assumptions that we used to have about artworks—that paintings need a white cube, video art needs a black box, performance art needs an auditorium,” she says. “And that’s not the case at all. There is a much greater sense of presenting art across genres. And it requires more flexibility.”
The renovation may also free up space for visitors to see more of the permanent collection. The museum’s holdings are currently changing into short and long-term exhibitions. Chiu points to Sondra Perry’s Graft and Ash and Kusama’s Mirror Rooms as examples of works she would like to exhibit more regularly.
In Cooper’s words, the new project boils down to “more art, more art, more art,” with hopes of attracting more viewers to that art as well. “We want people to come to the museum,” says Selldorf. “And if they just come in to look around for a while and never make it all the way to the top, they are still welcome.”