Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

  • Client Smithsonian Insititution
  • Expertise Cultural
  • Region North America
  • Location Washington, District of Columbia, United States

A unique structure for a singular art collection, Gordon Bunshaft’s open, circular design intrigues visitors along the National Mall and captivates lovers of modern art and architecture from around the world.

Project Facts
  • Completion Year 1974
  • Size Site Area: 4 acres Building Height: 82 feet Number of Stories: 3 Building Gross Area: 176,000 square feet
  • Awards
    1976, Award, New York Association of Consulting Engineers - Structural Building Division 1975, Award, Prestressed Concrete Institute
  • Collaborators
    Jaros, Baum & Bolles Paul Weidlinger, New York
Project Facts
  • Completion Year 1974
  • Size Site Area: 4 acres Building Height: 82 feet Number of Stories: 3 Building Gross Area: 176,000 square feet
  • Awards
    1976, Award, New York Association of Consulting Engineers - Structural Building Division 1975, Award, Prestressed Concrete Institute
  • Collaborators
    Jaros, Baum & Bolles Paul Weidlinger, New York

Modernism on the Mall

By the mid-1960s the internationally acclaimed modern art collection of Joseph H. Hirshhorn had earned a permanent place on the National Mall, and an architectural statement to support it.  

Washington, D.C., won out in a competition to land the privately amassed collection thanks to the efforts of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and Smithsonian Institute president S. Dillon Ripley. With a spot on the Mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument secured, Mr. Hirshhorn had a desirable site. With Gordon Bunshaft, he had an architect who would create an unforgettable home for the collection.

© Ezra Stoller | Esto

Making the “donut”

Bunshaft’s structure – affectionately called a “Brutalist donut” these days – belongs to Washington’s assortment of ambitious if polarizing concrete architecture of the 1960s and ‘70s that broke away from aesthetic tradition, including Harry Weese’s Metro stations, Marcel Breuer’s HUD and HHS buildings, and Araldo Cossutta’s L’Enfant Plaza.

At the Hirshhorn, concrete articulates ambition from the sculpture garden to the plaza and the museum building that hovers fourteen feet above it. A windowless outer wall, save for a third-floor balcony facing the Mall, is balanced out by an interior circle flush with natural lighting that looks onto the plaza and its fountain. 

© Ezra Stoller | Esto

The idiosyncrasies and impact of the Hirshhorn’s architecture mark it as its own irreplaceable, marvelous structure.

A dynamic home for contemporary art

The inclusion of a sculpture garden matches the prevailing desire for museums to include outdoor modernist spaces. Bunshaft himself was no stranger to this, having designed a courtyard as part of his 1962 expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. And had already pursued artists for contributions to outdoor areas at his corporate and institutional buildings – particularly Isamu Noguchi, who made works for One Chase Manhattan Plaza, 140 Broadway, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and the Connecticut General Life Insurance headquarters

The monumental cylindrical building reflects Bunshaft’s evolving thoughts on architecture and form-making in the 1960s. It also serves as a canvas of sorts for artists who use the outer shell for visual projections, and during a panel replacement project, a scaffolding mural

An enduring American postwar vision, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden continues to evolve in a fast-changing art world and increasingly complex globalized society, all while anchored by its ageless “donut.”

Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum

Teaming up for a refresh

In October 2022, the museum selected SOM and Selldorf Architects to jointly develop a modernization plan for the Museum’s interior and plaza. After nearly a half-century, the Hirshhorn will upgrade galleries and public spaces to respond to the requirements of a public museum of modern and contemporary art and dramatic increases in attendance since 2017. In addition to the changing needs and expansion of exhibition space, SOM and Selldorf will address aging infrastructure, including fine art storage, vertical transportation, and stormwater management. The appointment of SOM and Selldorf marks the onset of the final chapter of successive projects—the largest campus revitalization in the Hirshhorn’s history. The three-phase upgrade began with a building facade repair and continues with the Hiroshi Sugimoto-led redesign of the Sculpture Garden.

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