Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
It was a bold idea that would transform an iconic museum and the skyline of the National Mall. In 2009, the new director at the Hirshhorn Museum proposed a “seasonal inflatable structure” — a huge temporary bubble that would balloon out from the top of the building’s iconic donut-shaped building. Four years later, that project is in jeopardy, and the Hirshhorn’s director is on his way out. We explore debates about the art and economics of the “Hirshhorn Bubble” and what it means for the creative communities of D.C.
- Kriston Capps Senior Editor, Architect Magazine; contributing writer, Washington City Paper
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It was a bold idea that temporarily transformed the skyline of the National Mall, a giant inflatable bubble bulging into the sky atop the Hirshhorn Museum, a silver balloon stuffed through the gallery's iconic doughnut-shaped building. First proposed in 2009, the so-called seasonal inflatable structure would not only change the look and feel of a major art institution, it would host exhibits and cultural events and bring a little buzz to a tradition-bound corner of the city.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut four years later, the bubble is in jeopardy. The museum's director is on his way out, and the whole saga is raising bigger questions about public art in Washington, D.C. Joining us to talk about this is Kriston Capps, contributing writer to Washington City Paper, senior editor of Architect magazine. His article on the Hirshhorn bubble appears on the cover of this week's Washington City Paper. Kriston Capps, thank you for joining us.
MR. KRISTON CAPPSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThe Hirshhorn, it's one of the most iconic buildings on the mall. It's a doughnut-shaped building built in 1974 at the corner of 7th Street and Independence Avenue. This project was supposed take a structure that seemed complete and encourages to reconsider it. Tell us about the seasonal inflatable structure.
CAPPSOK. Well, the seasonal inflatable structure is, of course, people call it around Washington the bubble, is a project by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Those are the architects that have given us several recent projects across the United States: in Boston, the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and in New York, the very celebrated High Line, which is an elevated rail turned into a park in West Manhattan. So for Washington, D.C., they were brought on to look at the campus of the Hirshhorn.
CAPPSI don't know that it's something that anyone ever really considered before, that this building, as you said, could be incomplete. And their decision was kind of upended. If you listen to Liz Diller describe it, she says that the building is insular. It's closed in. She's not a fan of the brutalist concrete doughnut design. So she wanted to fill it up with air. The actual design would be an enclosure, a blue -- I believe it's a glass-silicate structure that, one inflated, would enclose the -- most of the central courtyard and the interior column of the Hirshhorn Museum.
CAPPSThis gives you a -- not really a new space, so much as a redefined space, a different kind of space where you look at it in a different way, approach it with different kinds of projects that have never really been conceived or thought of before for that courtyard.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What does the saga of the Hirshhorn bubble tell you about the state of the arts in Washington and the state of government arts funding? 800-433-850. I notice something. Looking at the way people write and talk about this plan, whether it's now that the plan is in jeopardy or four years ago when it was first unveiled, not everyone seemed to think this was a good idea or good art or good design. But many people seem to be excited anyway. Why is that?
CAPPSWell, I think there are a few reasons. I mean, one of the things that's very apparent in the design is that it is irreverent. And when we think of the National Mall, we think of that classic, commemorative space. It is a place for marble monuments and big stone buildings and our sacred halls, and that is as it should be. But it should also be a place that reflects what we, as a nation, hope to do with art and with architecture, what we are doing with those things. Sometimes those trends can be worrying. Sometimes they can be provocative.
CAPPSAnd I think that those -- that this project by the Diller Scofidio + Renfro has some of those elements. It's a stunt. It is a spectacle, it's certainly that. But it is also an example of the way that architects, through the recession, this kind of austerity era of architecture, are relooking at buildings. They're trying to reuse and transform and adapt buildings for new circumstances in new uses.
NNAMDIIn the same vein, whether you approved of, favored this plan or not, it seems as if you feel it would be a bad thing if this thing was cancelled. Why?
CAPPSI think that Washington has few opportunities for transformative architecture. You know, as you know, the Height Act restricts the -- our ability to build vertically. So we have a density issue in Washington, D.C. One of the few areas where you can build a really progressive building is the National Mall. But in the National Mall, we have a space issue. There's just not much National Mall left to build out.
CAPPSSo I think for one of the very few examples to come along that is progressive, that employs, you know, MacArthur-genius architects of this very current generation to fail and for a very modest price when you look at the incredible buildings, the incredible cost for buildings today, for that to fail, I think, would suggest that Washington is not a place where we can do this kind of work.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mike in Columbia, Md., who, I think, really agrees with you. Mike writes: "D.C. is an international city with many sophisticated people in the region. European capitals have things like this all the time, an amazing blending of the old and the new. The bubble is only up during a season, not all the time.
NNAMDI"This is a great solution by one of the top innovative architectural firms out there to attract people to a contemporary art museum. Note that the philistines and blabbermouths restrict our cultural innovations." To which you say?
CAPPSI say I'd agree. I don't like philistines making our plans for us. I don't know if that's exactly the issue there. But I do think in the end, yes, this is a project that we should build, and I worry about not being able to build future projects if this fails.
NNAMDISo why is it under threat?
CAPPSThere was disagreement from the very beginning about how much this project was going to cost. When it was first introduced in the New York Times in 2009, the cost was figured at $5 million. By the time that Richard Koshalek, the director of the Hirshhorn, had attracted the first signature donor, which is Bloomberg LP, that price had grown to between 12 and $15 million. This happens in architecture. This is a big project. They're doing something that no one's even planned for.
CAPPSI talked to a Smithsonian engineer the other day. He said his first concern was how are we gonna get all of this air into the space. So there's a lot of questions that they needed to answer. At the same time, you're dealing with austerity. I think there is some concern within the Smithsonian that building an irreverent project with a price tag like that could raise some alarms in the Congress.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kriston Capps. He is a contributing writing -- writer to Washington City Paper. He's senior editor of Architect Magazine. His article on the Hirshhorn Bubble appears on the cover of this week's Washington City Paper. We're inviting you to join the conservation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHow would you assess the health of the local arts and architecture scene in the attitude of the federal government towards the arts? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Let's go to Ian in Washington, D.C. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IANHi, Kojo and Kriston. My question is about the actual exhibition space at the Hirshhorn. I mean, one of the things that's so strange about it is that kind of honeycomb design that they have on the inside, it does seem to kind of limit the type of exhibitions, the types of work that they can show. But at the same time, so an expansion seems like a good thing.
IANBut from what I've seen, this doesn't really expand the exhibition space. It seems almost like it's kind of a conference space which makes me think it might have other purposes.
CAPPSWell, that's a question that many critics of the project have raised is that this is, in a sense, an extension, more of the wonderful auditorium and less of the actual gallery space. I know from talking to a former curator at Hirshhorn that there were a few artists who were lined up that were looking at projects specifically for the bubble. Katharina Grosse is one of them.
CAPPSBut I do think that Richard Koshalek's vision of the museum is one that is changing. The museum isn't merely for exhibiting art but is for making connections, inviting in social practice lecture discussion. It is not a vision for museums that everyone necessarily agrees with. I would push back, though, against the notion that the Hirshhorn is not a great venue for showing art.
CAPPSI think that it's a wonderful space to see. And I think that we have seen some really dynamic projects on the inside and recently even on the outside of that building.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ian. You mentioned Richard Koshalek a couple of times. He has offered/tendered his resignation. He seems to be on the way out of the museum. What did his ideas say about the direction he wanted to take this institution at?
CAPPSWell, from the very beginning, he was looking at the space and thinking about ways to transform its architecture. I have described him, I think, as a visionary, which has -- you know, is not something that everyone's going to agree on. But I do think he walked into the building with an idea to transform it throughout. He moved the bookstore into the basement, opened up the lobby, invited various artists to accomplish those things and wanted to go this extra step further.
CAPPSI think he had projects even beyond this one involving the Sculpture Garden and raising another pavilion over that. But the board at the Hirshhorn and I believe the figures at the Smithsonian do not share his appetite for change.
NNAMDIWell, of course, the Hirshhorn was once described by the famous New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable as a born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. That is a particular style of brutalist design with which I am unfamiliar. That's how she felt about it. And so he obviously felt it needed some change. The Hirshhorn does seem to attract or nurture talented people for its director, but you see a worrying trend that the museum can't seem to retain those people.
CAPPSIt's difficult in -- the space that Washington has, you know, found itself in before is one of trying to compete with institutions like the LA County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a lot of institutions that are private. Many of the modern and contemporary art museums are privately funded, and I think that Washington lacks the kind of funders that you see in places like New York and Los Angeles.
CAPPSI mean, there's not Hollywood money here. The real estate money here isn't what it's like in New York City. So I think that the direction that our museums are going to have to take to keep top talent is by expanding the board, finding a more national and international board.
NNAMDIHere is Jeannie in Silver Spring, Md. Jeannie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANNIEHello there. I'd like to know if the Bubble is supposed to do anything other than be an interesting, obviously provocative piece of art that maybe gets people talking about art and architecture because I agree with the assessment of the Hirshhorn. It's a really terrible piece of architecture. But, you know, is it supposed to make the interior courtyard more usable for a year or help with airflow or do anything at all useful or just be interesting?
CAPPSI think that it would be useful and interesting. I'm not sure that it would do anything maybe in the sense that you're asking. But, you know, one of the things I thought when I first saw it is that this is going to be something that will baffle tourists and delight Washingtonians. You know how it is in Washington when the cherry blossoms are out -- and that's a much awaited phenomenon -- or when the cicadas come to town.
NNAMDIIt's a big deal.
CAPPSI think that when the Bubble is inflated in the fall or spring, as was the plan, that would be a moment when people head down to go see it, have a picnic on the mall, see what it's all about and then, I think, investigate the programming inside. Hopefully, the programming would include things that would invite in Washingtonians and tourists alike, but I don't know that we're going to see that now.
NNAMDIJeannie, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can give us a call. Does the Washington art scene in your view need a big spectacle or a buzz-inducing project like the Hirshhorn Bubble? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That number again, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the Bubble at the Hirshhorn Gallery or the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian. We're talking with Kriston Capps. He's a contributing writer to Washington City Paper. His article on the Hirshhorn Bubble appears on the cover of this week's Washington City Paper. He's also senior editor of Architect magazine. And you can join the conversation by giving us a call at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIKriston, in and of itself, the story of the Bubble might not be very alarming, but you argue that it's happening in a broader environment, which raises red flags about the health of the local arts and architecture scenes. The Smithsonian, for instance, finds itself in a distressing of sadly familiar position with regards to its funding climate. It's been affected by sequestration, and it finds itself having to justify its spending more vigorously. There's also a question of whether or how committed the top leadership at the Smithsonian is to the arts, isn't there?
CAPPSWell, I wonder about it. I definitely think that there are questions to be answered. The Smithsonian structure has changed in recent years. Since the departure of the undersecretary of art, Ned Rifkin, several years back, that position was eliminated. This was at a very transitional moment for the Smithsonian. There were very few appointed leaders at the institution at that time, which I believe was 2008, five high senior leaders.
CAPPSOnly one of them, Ned Rifkin, wasn't appointed. This interim administration eliminated this position, and I wonder whether that signals that they're not considering or weighing the arts as carefully and as appropriately as they should be. When we look back over the last couple of years, we have the "Hide/Seek" controversy when a work was censored at the National Portrait Gallery.
CAPPSYou know, moving from the Smithsonian into Washington itself, I think that it's difficult to see a lot of projects, a lot of progressive projects accomplished, and you want the Hirshhorn, you want the Smithsonian to be leading this charge. It's always important to answer very carefully when you're spending public money that you're doing this in a wise way. But it is necessary to be bold and to be provocative and to do wonderful things with American art and with American architecture. The National Gallery -- or the National Mall is our -- it's our cultural treasury, and it deserves the very best.
NNAMDIHere's Jack in Falls Church, Va. Jack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKThank you. My question is what is the possibility of combined public and private funding for the project?
CAPPSThere was very little public funding ever meant for the project to begin with. The Smithsonian was committed to it very early on. The secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, signaled his support. I believe that they devoted $4 million to the project, but that left another possibly 10 to $12 million to be raised privately. And that was the plan that the undersecretary for history, culture and art, Richard Kurin, signaled very on to this project. He described it as discretionary, meaning that Hirshhorn was going to have to do it themselves.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jack. We got an email from Constance in Silver Spring, which I'd like to read along with one we got from Anne in Alexandria. Constance in Silver Spring says, "Irreverence and innovation in art is fine. A trashy eyesore is not. The pictures I've seen of the Bubble make it looked like something at a county fair, a bouncy castle gone wrong maybe, or a giant inflatable condom. We can do better," says Constance.
NNAMDIAnne in Alexandria says, "I like the Hirshhorn, and I think the Bubble would be great for D.C. D.C. has gone from a sleepy little town to a real cosmopolitan space. This bubble would be the cherry on top or the blue bubble on top for the fuddy-duddies who don't like change. It's a temporary structure. It goes away after awhile. This would put D.C. on the map, definitely crowdsource the project from a traditional museum perspective. This is tricky kind of project we're talking about.
NNAMDI"It really seems to be at the intersection or architecture and art. It's really expensive. Some people wonder whether it's even particularly good art or good architecture. But this does seem to be the direction contemporary art is heading in. Does the Smithsonian, as a sort of repository of American culture, have a responsibility in your view to keep up with the times?"
CAPPSYou don't want to see the Smithsonian buy into a moment of contemporary art that is going to burst like a proverbial bubble. I do think that the, you know, soaring costs you see for a contemporary art and the dramatic building-size projects, it reflects an attitude of the art market may be less than a genuine movement or concern among artists. It's a very elite, if you will, 1 percent posture and contemporary art.
CAPPSI'm not sure that the Smithsonian wants to pursue that at the same time. You can have projects at the scale of the building that are very inviting, very accessible. "Song 1" I think was an example of that. It is not a piece that I adored, but I think it is a piece that was very well-received here in Washington by locals and tourists alike.
NNAMDIJane in Aquia Creek writes, "Hi. I think that the Bubble project doesn't go far enough. In my opinion, the building looks like the pedestal for a sculpture. And its plain outside walls looked like a great place to hang outdoor modern art or display innovative art ideas. Why not regularize this and ask artists to create things that use the pedestal idea to construct more interesting things than bubbles?"
CAPPSWell, that's an interesting question. And I think that's at the heart of this concern. If we cannot accomplish a project like this, which I'd -- I will say I think is expensive but modestly priced given the ambition, given the scale that they're working at, then what happens the next time that someone has an idea?
NNAMDIThis is not the only historic art museum downtown that's having something of an identity crisis in public. Last year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art found itself in national headlines after reports surfaced that it was considering selling its building. This is a separate story, of course, but it does seem to highlight the challenges facing art venues in the city.
CAPPSI wonder actually whether you could consider the Bubble as a direct response to the failure of the Corcoran to build a Frank Gehry wing. You know, when that happened, that was an exciting wing. It was a facade. It was going to be a very dramatic building to put a few blocks from the White House. But when that project failed to materialized, when the money just absolutely wasn't there for it, I think that the next, you know, the next time that a project came around, something like this, people thought, well, we're gonna have to do it in a much more modest way.
CAPPSIt's more befitting to the economy, and it's more befitting to the kind of architecture that we're working with and talking about today. And now we -- maybe see that this is going to fail too.
NNAMDIOn to Vicky in Adams Morgan in Washington. Vicky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICKYThank you so much for letting me speak. And thank you for your show, Mr. Nnamdi. I really enjoy your show.
VICKYYou're welcome. I wanted to say to this gentleman you are interviewing that I think that the idea is a ridiculous expense to be doing at this time considering the state, the economy is in. But if you do insist upon doing it, I offer my volunteer effort to paint a portrait of George Bush on the Bubble when you get the Bubble up. And then I suggest that you have someone put a great big pen in it at the end of the exhibit to blow George Bush's bubble up. Thank you.
NNAMDIWelcome to Washington's partisan political divide. Also joining it is Beth in D.C., who writes, "Don't worry, that lovable car thief and insurance fraudster Darrell Issa is pushing to raise the height limits for D.C. for the benefit of developers he likes. So maybe you can build a five-storey mushroom on top of the Hirshhorn then." Of course, Congressman Darrell Issa heads the government operations committee.
NNAMDIHe is a Republican who was once charge with larceny back in 1972 for allegedly stealing a Maserati sports car. The charges, however, were eventually dropped, so you cannot call him -- well, you can call him anything you want to, but it is not correct factually to call him a car thief. But this does raise issues about the height issue. What this does have to do with the height issue, the height limitation issue on Washington, D.C.?
CAPPSWhen you talk to architects outside of Washington, you occasionally hear anecdotally that such and such wonderful architect who never work in Washington because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the license to work here when you're capped at an unusually low-building height. But when you talk to local Washington architects, the people who do many of the projects, the building projects around town, they say that the population growth in recent years has really forced their hands.
CAPPSThey're required to build what you see coming up all across town, which are very square, very squat buildings. I worry that we're all -- that, you know, we're going to have a very similar looking city, just block by block, without a great deal of architectural diversity. The one place where, you know, you have so much freedom is on the National Mall, but it's closing in. There is very little room left. There are even questions about where to put in very deserving buildings like an American-Latino museum.
CAPPSThey're not sure where exactly to fit that in. We're going to need to expand the nature of the mall or find some corners to start, you know, wedging the buildings into.
NNAMDIThe key date that we're looking at here is June 24. That's when there is expected to be a final vote on this project, which, by the way, has one unanimous approval from the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts. Both of those approvals probably having to do with the issue of height limits that you were discussing earlier. But what do you think is gonna come of the final vote on June 24?
CAPPSI don't think there's really a chance for the Bubble. I think it would be a very awkward position for the Smithsonian to take, to approve it, while its champion has left the building. I don't know that we're even going to need to wait until June 24 at this point. I think that they're gonna tell us that this is done before then.
CAPPSThat's a sense of the board. According to one board member that after his resignation, there's just not going to -- they're just not going through with it.
NNAMDIThere'll be no point in carrying on in their view. Kriston Capps is a contributing writer to Washington City Paper. His article on the Hirshhorn Bubble appears on the cover of this week's Washington City Paper. He's also senior editor of Architect Magazine. Kriston Capps, thank you for joining us.
CAPPSThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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