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Controversial Revitalization of Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden Approved

A planned revitalization of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., has been approved, settling a two-year debate between preservationists and the art institution over controversial changes to its sunken sculpture garden. On Thursday, the federal National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) voted 6-0 in favor of the $60-million project designed by Japanese architect and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. The Hirshhorn tapped the artist in 2018 to reimagine its sculpture garden, and his proposal includes new open-air galleries, improved accessibility, and the expansion of a central reflecting pool. Construction is expected to begin in fall 2022 and finish in time for the Hirshhorn’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2024.

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In July the committee voted 5–2 to approve the proposal, but progress was stalled by architecture historians who said it fundamentally altered the Brutalist vision of architect Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the structure in 1974 as a complement to the museum’s Modernist drum-shape. Critics also feared the redesign would damage the celebrated 1981 renovation by landscape architect Lester Collins, who added cherry trees and other vegetation to make the gravel walkways hospitable to visitors during the hot summers.

“This restoration—Bunshaft is an artist and Lester Collins is an artist and I am the third artist to show up, so my position is one-third of the position,” Sugimoto told the Art Newspaper in January. This is a new job for me to negotiate with the history. This is a very important and interesting process for me.”

Over the past three decades, the sculpture garden has suffered from an aged infrastructure and poor visibility on the National Mall. The garden attracts 150,000 visitors a year, a small slice of the 1 million visitors to the museum—many of whom don’t realize they missed masterworks by artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin, and Henry Moore. Sugimoto’s new design aims to help direct the public into the garden. New overlooks and ramps from the National Mall will be built. The underground tunnel that connects the museum with the garden will be modernized and the sculpture collection expanded with contemporary works. Wheelchair access and flood protection will be improved. The open-air galleries will also make the garden a destination for performance and exhibitions.

Last December the NCPC recommended the museum explore alternatives to Sugimoto’s plans to substitute parts of the deteriorating interior partition wall with stacked stone and expand the garden’s reflecting pool, which was considered to mirror a window and balcony in the museum’s facade. The museum responded with a plan to reconstruct the partition wall with concrete to match Bunshaft’s design, and the construction of a new complementary pool with a performance platform in the south of the garden.

In a statement, Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, praised a “robust public process that allowed us to hear and incorporate the views of so many who care deeply about the garden.”

But some critics remain displeased with the outcome. Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation, said in a statement, “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.”

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