Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW
Dear Ms. Chiu:
In its meeting of 16 May, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a concept submission for the comprehensive renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden on the National Mall between 7th and 9th Streets, SW. The Commission approved the proposal with the following comments to guide the development of the design.
Noting the importance of the Sculpture Garden as a Modernist landscape inserted into the Mall, the Commission members emphasized an understanding of this garden as a palimpsest that reflects the successive contributions of its Modernist designers—Gordon Bunshaft and SOM, Lester Collins, and James Urban—over many decades. They recognized the garden’s significance as encompassing this broader design history, and they encouraged the Smithsonian Institution to document and interpret this history. For the proposed project, they observed that while the museum’s mission remains constant, the sculpture it presents continues to evolve in character, material, scale, and mode of display; they acknowledged the shortcomings of the existing garden landscape in creating an appropriate setting for many types of artwork, both Modern and contemporary. They also recognized the garden’s extensive physical deterioration, noting that most of the existing concrete retaining walls will need to be replaced. Therefore, they endorsed the proposal to renovate the garden comprehensively, commending the design as bringing much-needed improvements in accessibility; spatial quality and differentiation; opportunities for programming and performance; and the display of various types of artworks—physical, conceptual, and performance.
In their support for the proposed concept, the Commission members identified several issues to be addressed as the design for the Sculpture Garden is developed. In general, they commended the approach to differentiate the garden into three zones—lawn, pool, and grove—for different types of sculpture. They also supported the insertion of new stone walls within the garden to define its spaces, which would provide a good contrast with the austerity of the original concrete walls; however, they commented that the new walls should function first as settings for the sculpture, and their height, color, and texture should be studied further to enhance this purpose. Noting that spaces tend to appear smaller outdoors, they recommended ensuring that the eastern sequence of landscape rooms defined by the new stone walls will be sufficiently generous in size; they also recommended adding more trees in order to provide a figurative ceiling plane to enhance the perception of a larger outdoor room and to allow the experience of circulating within and under a bosque offering continuous shade. In general, they recommended careful detailing of the new elements within the garden—such as the junctures between concrete and stone walls, the materials and texture of the ground plane and other surfaces, and smaller elements such as steps and seats—to ensure they have a sculptural elegance commensurate with the quality of the museum as a whole. Regarding the pool and performance stage proposed for the sunken center of the garden, they expressed concern about the generic quality and functional limitations in creating a flexible performance space; they recommended considering other configurations of the stage platform, as well as removable access during times when no performances are scheduled.
In conclusion, the Commission expressed strong support for the proposed design as an ambitious renovation that will enhance the display and the public appreciation of this important sculpture collection. As always, the staff is available to assist you with the next submission.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Melissa Chiu, Director
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20560
cc: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sugimoto Studio
Faye Harwell, Rhodeside & Harwell