If you are exploring the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, you will be surrounded by a wonderland of architectural styles, each competing for your attention. Strolling past the iconic 19th century Smithsonian Castle and Arts and Industries Building, you will find yourself surprised by a very different sight: a large, round concrete structure known as the Hirshhorn Museum.
Introducing the Brutalist Donut
The Hirshhorn Museum is a completely round building raised up above the surrounding Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on sculptural piers. Viewed from around its perimeter, the structure appears to be nearly windowless. It is no wonder this heavy concrete building has received the moniker “Brutalist donut.”
Its design is the work of architect Gordon Bunshaft, who is famous for his International Style skyscrapers. Over time, he leaned more toward sculptural concepts in his designs. He was active from the 50s through the 70s, with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden being among his final works in 1974.
A Large Piece of Functional Sculpture
Bunshaft’s vision for the Hirshhorn was for the museum itself to serve as a “large piece of functional sculpture.” It is, in a sense, simply the largest of the works of art gracing its sculptural garden.
As you can see in the photo above, the Hirshhorn Museum is hiding quite a lot of windows. They are simply all inside the donut facing the courtyard.
There is a feeling of openness inside the Hirshhorn Museum. The structure’s simple forms and lack of ornamentation ensure that the focus of visitors remains on the artworks on display.
The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden is Undergoing a Major Redesign
Since the Hirshhorn Museum was envisioned as a “functional sculpture,” it cannot be considered separately from Bunshaft’s design for the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. The original 1974 design of the garden did not last long, however; it received a renovation in 1981 by landscape architect Lester Collins. New plants brought much-needed shade to the garden, and wheelchair ramps improved accessibility.
But now, the garden is receiving a much more dramatic redesign by architect Hiroshi Sugimoto. There are a few different reasons for the redesign. One is that the infrastructure of the garden has suffered over the decades. Another is that the garden is frequently overlooked by visitors to the Smithsonian.
The Debate Over the Redesign
Throughout 2021, the proposed renovation generated controversy. Much of that controversy has centered around the ideas of making the pool larger and adding walls made of stacked stone.
Sugimoto has stated that there are sketches that show that a “huge” pool was once part of Bunshaft’s own vision. As for the walls of stacked stone, Sugimoto states that Japanese Zen design principles suggest that a “premodern medieval style” backdrop will nicely offset the sculptures in the garden.
Countering these points, Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US, said, “The pool has a visual connection to the building—the relationship is critical and should absolutely be left alone. And the addition of the stacked walls would change the landscape and the feeling that you have when you’re in there.”
By the end of 2021, the National Capital Planning Commission unanimously approved the redesign. So, for better or worse (or both), it is going ahead. Hopefully, the new performance stage, expanded pool, and other changes will at least bring more foot traffic to the garden and the museum, making the Hirshhorn a more popular destination for visitors to the Smithsonian.
If you liked reading about the Hirshhorn Museum, you may also enjoy discovering another MCM building in Washington DC, the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!