Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden


Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990), a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and longtime partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill


National Mall, Washington, D.C.








  The exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is an art museum located in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall and designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft. It is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its collection focuses on contemporary and modern art. Outside the museum is a sculpture garden, featuring works by artists including Auguste Rodin and Alexander Calder.

The building itself is as much of an attraction as anything inside, likened by many to a large spacecraft parked on the National Mall. The building is essentially an open cylinder elevated by four massive "legs", with a large fountain occupying the central courtyard. The Smithsonian staff reportedly told Gordon Bunshaft, prior to designing the building, that if it did not provide a striking contrast to everything else in the city, then it would be unfit for housing a modern art collection.


Sphere No. 6 by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden.

In the late 1930s, the United States Congress mandated an art museum for the National Mall. At the time, the only venue for visual art was the National Gallery of Art, which focuses on Dutch, French and Italian art. During the 1940s World War II shifted the project into the background.

Meanwhile, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, now in his 40’s and enjoying phenomenal success from uranium mining investments, begins recreating his collection from classic French Impressionism to works by living artists, American modernism of the early 20th century, and sculpture. Then, in 1955, Joseph Hirshhorn sold his uranium interests for more than $50 million. He expanded his collection to warehouses, an apartment in New York, and an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, with extensive area for sculpture.

The Burghers of Calais. Photo by Jeff Kubina.

A 1962 sculpture show at New York's Guggenheim Museum awakens an international art community to the breadth of Hirshhorn's holdings. Word of his collection of modern and contemporary paintings also circulates, and institutions in Italy, Israel, Canada, California, and New York vie for the collection. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley make a successful pitch for a new museum on Washington, DC's National Mall. An Act of Congress establishes the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (1966). The museum is primarily federally funded, although Hirshhorn later contributes $1 million toward building construction. Joseph and his fourth wife, Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, visit the White House. Groundbreaking takes place in 1969.

Abram Lerner (born 1913) is named the founding Director. He oversaw research, conservation, and installation of more than 6,000 items brought from the Hirshhorns' Connecticut estate and other properties to Washington, DC.

The Burghers of Calais at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden (closeup).

The museum and garden complex was designed by Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) and provides 60,000 square feet of exhibition space inside and nearly four acres outside in its two-level Sculpture Garden and plaza. The New York Times described it as: “a fortress of a building that works as a museum.”

Joseph Hirshhorn spoke at the inauguration (1974), saying: "It is an honor to have given my art collection to the people of the United States as a small repayment for what this nation has done for me and others like me who arrived here as immigrants. What I accomplished in the United States I could not have accomplished anywhere else in the world." One million visitors saw the 850-work inaugural show in the first six months.

The founding donor

Joseph H. Hirshhorn with Georgia O'Keefe at the Hirshhorn Museum, November 9, 1977
The Hirshhorn Museum's founding donor, Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981), immigrated to New York from Latvia when he was 4 years old. His widowed mother settled with her 13 children (Joseph was the twelfth) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

In time, Hirshhorn would become a financier, philanthropist, and well-known collector of modern art whose gift to the nation of 6,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed-media pieces established his namesake museum on the National Mall. It has been open to the public since 1974.

At the age of 13, Joseph left school to become a newsboy. Two years later he took his first salaried job, on Wall Street in Manhattan, earning $12 per week. At 16, he launched his career as a financier by using his savings of $255 to become a stockbroker.

Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral by Jean Arp at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
When he was 18, Hirshhorn acquired his first works of art: two etchings by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer, purchased for $75 each. This acquisition marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for collecting art, assisted by an innate talent for making money. In the late 1940s, Hirshhorn's mining investments in uranium-rich Canadian land cemented his status as a wealthy man.

Hirshhorn eventually turned his attention to the art of contemporary masters. He became an avid collector of works by living painters such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Raphael Soyer, and Larry Rivers. He socialized and visited with many of these artists and assisted them when he could-helping his friend Willem de Kooning, for example, finance the construction of a Long Island studio in exchange for works of art.

As a collector, Hirshhorn also went after works by American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thomas Eakins, Louis Eilshemius, Ashcan School artists, and first-wave modernists in touch with European developments are prime examples.

Hirshhorn was a frequent and welcome visitor in the studios of those whose works he collected, and many of these visits were commemorated in photographs. One such occasion was a 1966 visit to Pablo Picasso at Mas Notre Dame de Vie, near Mougins, in the south of France. Bearded photographer Edward Steichen was a guest of the Hirshhorns at their house : Villa Lou Miradou, in Cap d'Antibes.

Ultimately, Hirshhorn was perhaps best known as a collector of 19th- and 20th-century sculpture. He acquired major works by pioneers such as Auguste Rodin and Constantin Brancusi, as well as innovative contemporaries including Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti. Developing fast friendships, Hirshhorn showed his enthusiasm in numerous ways: by visiting Moore's studio, for instance, and enjoying the art scene with Giacometti.

Nymph (Central Figure for "The Three Nymphs") by Aristide Maillol at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo by Jeff Kubina.

The breadth of Hirshhorn's sculpture collection was unknown to the general public until 1962, when selected works were loaned to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a major exhibition. Several international museums and governments courted Hirshhorn, but his comprehensive modern art holdings ultimately went to the Smithsonian Institution. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, played a supporting role by paying personal visits to Joseph and his wife, Olga. After an Act of Congress established the Hirshhorn Museum in 1966, the Johnsons joined the Hirshhorns for the museum's groundbreaking in January 1969, just prior to the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Among the numerous honors afforded this self-made philanthropist during his lifetime was, appropriately, the Horatio Alger Award in 1976. The award is designed to honor determination, perseverance, and success in the face of adversity.

Dividing his time between Washington, DC, and Naples, Florida, Joseph Hirshhorn remained a vigorous art collector and patron until his death in 1981. His subsequent bequest to the museum nearly doubled the size of the collection. Building on this nucleus of Hirshhorn artworks, curators keep current on new art while refining the collection, which today numbers some 11,500 pieces. A constant stream of new acquisitions, including curators' purchases and gifts of art from many donors, extends the Hirshhorn legacy of passion for new art.


Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990), a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and longtime partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was chosen by the Smithsonian Institution to design its new museum, established by an Act of Congress in 1966 after Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated his extensive modern art holdings to the American people.

The MIT-trained architect-an avid art collector-created well-reasoned, classical buildings that stressed function over fashion. His Lever House (1952), on New York's Park Avenue, remains a pivotal early example of glass-box scyscraper design, echoing the growing international influence of Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" sensibility.

Among Bunshaft's other major projects are the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1962), the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University (1963, incorporating a Noguchi environment), the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas (1971), and acclaimed skyscrapers such as One Chase Manhattan Plaza.

Design concept
Bunshaft conceived the Hirshhorn as "a large piece of functional sculpture" among the shrinelike structures of the National Mall. The hollow-centered, elevated cylinder-primarily a gallery for paintings-floats above nearly two acres of landscaped grounds for sculpture.

Curved galleries expand the visitor's view of works. Window-walls open the interior and focus on the fountain, while a recessed garden provides serenity. Like the round Guggenheim Museum in New York, the drum-shaped Hirshhorn is bold compared with its neighbors (Mall constructions tend to be brick Victorian fantasies, modernist block buildings, or neoclassical temples), but symmetry and frontality conserve the official Washington, DC, architectural mode.

Architectural timeline
1969. The Hirshhorn Museum groundbreaking takes place on the former site of the Army Medical Museum (built 1887) after the brick structure is demolished. A controversy soon develops over naming a building on the historic National Mall after a living person, as well as the new federal museum's modern look and intrusively expansive sculptural grounds.
1971. Amid this climate of controversy, Bunshaft's original conception for the Sculpture Garden-an elongated, sunken rectangle crossing the Mall with a large reflecting pool-is abandoned. He prepares a new design based on an idea outlined by art critic Benjamin Forgey in a Washington Star article. The new adaptation shifts the garden's Mall orientation from perpendicular to parallel and reduces its size from 2 acres to 1.3 acres. The design is deliberately stark, using gravel surfaces and minimal plantings to visually emphasize the works of art.
1974. The museum opens with three floors of painting galleries, a fountain plaza for sculpture, and the Sculpture Garden. In preparation for the opening, Hirshhorn curators and staff spend several months scrupulously planning the locations of artworks, both indoors and outdoors. Lightweight foam-core "dummy" sculptures are used to resolve the final placement of works in the garden. The originals, many of which had been airlifted from Hirshhorn's Connecticut estate onto flatbed trucks for transport, are put into place in the weeks before the opening.
1981. Closed since the summer of 1979, the Sculpture Garden reopens in September after a renovation and redesign by Lester Collins, a well-known landscape architect and founder of the Innesfree Foundation. The design introduces plantings, paved surfaces, accessibility ramps, and areas of lawn.
1985. The Museum Shop is moved to the lobby, increasing exhibition space at its former location on the lower level.
1993. Closed since December 1991, the Hirshhorn Plaza reopens after a renovation and redesign by landscape architect James Urban. The 2.7 acre area around and under the building is repaved in two tones of gray granite, and raised areas of grass and trees are added to the east and west.

Raves and criticisms
"The whole complex has been designed as one composition... Bunshaft's design is not concerned with the grandeur of the Mall. It is concerned with the greater grandeur of his museum and it gives us an awful lot of beaux-arts pavement and pomposity that no longer seem to suit the taste and style of our times." [Preliminary design criticized] Wolf Von Eckhardt, The Washington Post, February 6, 1971.
"The circular plan is not only clear, but also provides a pleasant processional sequence that goes a long way.... The fortress quality of the Hirshhorn suggests some rather obvious thoughts about the nature of housing art in our time. But the building's architecture... is less the product of a desire to make a statement... than it is a logical progression in aesthetic development.... " Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, October 2, 1974.
"[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign... It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine 'brutalism' a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden." Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times, October 6, 1974.
"The parched severity of [the original Sculpture Garden] was not without merit, but the appeal was more to the mind than to the senses, more theoretical than practical.... The new design reinforces the identity of the garden as a welcoming urban park.... [This] park for art...serves the sculpture. The divisions of the space prove essential accents; artworks pop in and out of view as the spectator moves about the space...." Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, September 12, 1981.
"[The Hirshhorn is] the biggest piece of abstract art in town-a huge, hollowed cylinder raised on four massive piers, in absolute command of its walled compound on the Mall.... The circular a grand concoction...that for good reason has become the museum's visual trademark." Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, November 4, 1989.

Technical information
Building and walls surfaced with precast concrete aggregate of "Swenson" pink granite
Building is 231 feet (70.4 m) in diameter; interior court, 115 feet (35.1 m); fountain, 60 feet (18 m)
Building is 82 feet (25 m) high, elevated 14 feet on four massive, sculptural piers
60,000 square feet (6,000 m²) of exhibition space on three floors
197,000 square feet (18,300 m²) of total exhibition space, indoors and outdoors
274-seat auditorium (lower level)
2.7 acres around and under the museum building
1.3 acre sculpture garden across Jefferson Drive sunken 6-14 feet below street level, ramped for accessibility
Second- and third-floor galleries have 15 foot (4.6 m)-high walls, with exposed 3 foot (0.9 m)-deep coffered ceilings
Lower level includes exhibition space, storage, workshops, offices
Fourth floor includes offices, storage