SOM and Selldorf Architects selected to lead major revitalization of the Hirshhorn Museum

Full Cylinder

SOM and Selldorf Architects selected to lead major revitalization of the Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. wrapped in Draw the Curtain, a large-scale work by Swiss artist Nicolas Party installed while the museum undergoes a facade overhaul. (Courtesy the Smithsonian Institution)

Nearly 50 years after the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden first debuted in Washington, D.C. with a design by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the Smithsonian Institution has announced that the firm, joined by Selldorf Architects, will return to the Hirshhorn to helm what’s been described as the largest campus revitalization project in the history of the National Mall–flanking contemporary and modern art museum.

As detailed in a press announcement, the SOM|Selldorf team will jointly develop a comprehensive modernization plan for the landmark museum (a.k.a. the “Brutalist Donut”), which takes form as an elevated concrete drum rising three stories above Independence Avenue SW. Planned renovation work will zero in on upgrading the aging museum’s galleries and interior public spaces that has undergone “dramatic increases in attendance since 2017.” The museum’s bustling main plaza, outdated infrastructure, and collection storage spaces will also be addressed in the accessibility- and sustainability-minded plan.

As noted by museum director Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn’s attendance numbers have grown an impressive 40 percent over the five years. “In response to these developments, the revitalization of our museum campus prepares us for the 21st century,” she said. “We are pleased to work with SOM | Selldorf to do this.”

The forthcoming interior revitalization effort at the Hirshhorn makes the concluding element of a trifecta on major upgrades at the museum that kicked off with a full facade refresh and roof replacement. Work on this exterior-focused first phase of work is anticipated to wrap up (or wrap off, technically) by the end of this year.

The second element in the three-phase overhaul—one that’s faced considerable criticism and praise—is the Hiroshi Sugimoto–led redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, which was designed by Bunshaft and later dramatically reimagined by landscape architect Lester Collins in the early 1980s. The contentious project, which will expand the sunken garden’s available space for modern sculpture, large-scale installations, and performance art while also reopening a long-closed underground passageway that connects the museum to the National Mall through the Sculpture Garden, received final approval from the National Capital Planning Commission last December.

The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign is set to break ground on November 16 in a formal ceremony presided over by First Lady Jill Biden with construction work expected to commence next spring. Joining Sugimoto and his Tokyo-based New Material Research Laboratory Co. Ltd. is Brooklyn-based YUN Architecture, Quinn Evans Architects in the role of architect of record, and Rhodeside & Harwell serving as landscape architect.

As far as timing is concerned with the expansive renovation project, the SOM|Selldorf team will submit a visioning document next year ahead of a design concept, which will be subject to a public consultation process according to the Smithsonian. An anticipated budget has not been determined in the early planning stages.

“We are thrilled to be working together on the revitalization of the Hirshhorn Museum,” said SOM partner Chris Cooper and Annabelle Selldorf, principal at Selldorf Architects, in a joint statement. “Ensuring that the building is better able to accommodate the museum’s ambitious programs, while serving a larger and more diverse audience, is of critical importance. And we need to be able to do so while making the building more sustainable.”

Although the forthcoming SOM|Selldorf effort, joined by the facade refresh and the Sculpture Garden reimagining, marks the most significant revitalization project in Hirshhorn history, the museum has undergone other revamps in the past, including an early 1990s overhaul of its plaza, a lobby redesign led by Sugimoto completed in early 2018, and, as mentioned, the previous redesign of the Sculpture Garden completed in 1981.

We’ll continue to track to progress of this latest major overhaul at the museum, which the Smithsonian said will necessitate some temporary closures of galleries and other spaces.