National Capital Planning Commission gives final approval to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign

It’s a Go

National Capital Planning Commission gives final approval to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign

The approved plan to revitalize the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden includes additional seating and shading, improved accessibility, and an enlarged reflecting pool. (Courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Washington, D.C.’s National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has bestowed its full and final blessing to the Hiroshi Sugimoto-led redesign of the modernist sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall.

“It is an honor to be entrusted with revitalizing and renewing the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden,” said Sugimoto. “My design acknowledges the contributions of Gordon Bunshaft, the Hirshhorn’s original architect, and Lester Collins, who reconsidered the garden in 1981. My challenge is to anticipate how art will be created, displayed, and shared in a public environment. As an artist, I am thrilled the proposal has passed and am looking forward to bringing it to life.”

Six commissioners voted in favor, and none against, the often contentious revamp, which pitted preservation and advocacy groups against the Smithsonian Institution and high-profile backers of the project. Much of the unease revolved around Sugimoto’s addition of dry-stacked stone walls to the garden, which the museum has claimed will improve acoustic performances for events, and preserving the “dignity of restraint,” to quote Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of advocacy- and education-focused The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), of the garden’s reflecting pool, which is in conversation with the single rectangular window on the building’s facade.

a sunken sculpture garden in front of a round museum
An aerial view of the renovated sculpture garden (Courtesy YUN Architecture)

While “generally supportive” of the redesign, TCLF has led the charge in demanding an increased level of transparency as to how the two most significant planned alterations—the addition of the stacked-stone walls and the expansion of the reflecting pool—will impact the design integrity of the landmark modernist landscape.

“The outcome today concerning the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign demonstrates that nationally significant works of landscape architecture, especially important Modernist designs in the nation’s capital, continue to be held to a different standard than building architecture by their stewards and regulatory agencies,” said Birnbaum in a statement provided to AN.

The proposed plans to overhaul the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden won unanimous preliminary approval from the NCPC and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in 2019. Following Sugimoto’s renovation of the main museum lobby, the overhaul of the Hirshhorn’s modernist landscape will be the second-ever comprehensive update of the Bunshaft-designed Hirshhorn campus, which originally debuted in 1974. In 1981, landscape architect Lester Collins oversaw a transformative redesign of the 1.5-acre sunken garden.

As for the latest redesign, Sugimoto leads a design team that includes his own firm, the Tokyo-based New Material Research Laboratory, Brooklyn’s YUN Architecture, the D.C. office of Quinn Evans Architects, and the Alexandria, Virginia-based landscape architecture and urban design studio Rhodeside & Harwell.

rendering of a sculpture garden at night
Rendering of the West Garden at night. (Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

This past July, the CFA, which does currently not include a single landscape architect in a notable deviation from the typical composition, gave its final approval to the redesign in a 5-2 vote, setting the stage for today’s vote from the NCPC. Voting for its approval, architect Billie Tsien, the then-newly elected chair of the commission, referred to Sugimoto’s design as “sensitive, thoughtful, thorough” while describing the Smithsonian’s approach to the landscape revitalization as “how to make buildings and gardens live.”

With both final approvals secured, the museum can now move forward with its plans.

“We welcome these approvals, which have followed a robust public process that allowed us to hear and incorporate the views of so many who care deeply about the garden,” said Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in a statement. “The final design by Hiroshi Sugimoto, the renowned Japanese artist and architect, will enhance the experience of millions of Hirshhorn visitors in coming years.”

As detailed by the museum, Sugimoto’s “mission-driven redesign” renders the garden more “accessible and inviting” to the roughly 30 million annual visitors traversing the National Mall (the Hirshhorn is the only Smithsonian museum to be directly integrated into the National Mall) while offering “flexible venues to welcome large-scale sculpture and time-based/performance works” and taking on long-needed infrastructural upgrades. A long-shuttered underground tunnel directly linking the sculpture garden with a spacious 4-acre plaza flanking the Hirshhorn will also be reopened to better fuse the Museum with the National Mall.

In total, the revamp will increase the Hirshhorn’s display of modernist sculpture in the east garden by nearly 50 percent while expanding the number of native plantings in the garden by 70 percent, offering a 150 percent increase in shade and seating. This, as stated by the museum, honors the original vision of the 1981 redesign overseen by Collins.

rendering of people visiting a sculpture garden
East Garden view (Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

As previously noted, improved accessibility and inclusivity are key components of the design. Said Beth Ziebarth, director of Access Smithsonian, in a statement following the CFA’s approval this summer: “I have worked with the Smithsonian design team for over two years to review and improve Sugimoto’s final design. Key improvements include two accessible entrances and accessible paths throughout the garden. The revitalized Sculpture Garden will join the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum as facilities that provide universal access to our visitors. Universal accessibility is an overarching Institutional initiative to provide equitable access to all visitors wherever possible.”

“Sugimoto’s vision is very much aligned with the garden’s original influences but takes a view toward the future,” Chiu added in response to the NCPC vote. “Our next chapter is one that is more inclusive and accessible and elevates the experiences and voices of today.”