After coming across reel footage of the Hirshhorn Museum’s January 1969 groundbreaking, we decided it would be a good occasion to dig into our own archives and look through the files for one of Gordon Bunshaft’s most contested designs. The photos, models, and drawings we found pair best with the condensed excerpt below from Nicholas Adams’ new book on the architect. The author will also be at the Center For Architecture on January 7, 2020 to discuss Bunshaft with Mary McLeod (Columbia University), Francesco Dal Co (IAUV), Colin Koop (SOM), and Alexandra Lange (Curbed). You can register for the event here.
Gordon Bunshaft had always responded to sculpture. The Venezuela Pavilion and his Metropolitan Museum exhibit, where he first met Ezra Stoller, showed his sympathies for Naum Gabo and constructivism. He had brought in Noguchi and other sculptors to help with his projects. The experience with Noguchi at 140 Broadway had opened him to a sense of artistic autonomy, as if he had been “a part of this final design.” By the 1960s Bunshaft began to think more intensely about architecture as sculpture. The stimulus may have been his friendship with Henry Moore, whose striving for monumentality could be combined with his own, a “footnote of monumentality to . . . architecture’s own expression of monumentality,” as James Johnson Sweeney put it. This tendency is evident in the cylindrical Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (1966–71). It is not just that the building appears to be a work of sculpture, standing isolated on its prominent Mall site, but that Bunshaft commented on the experience of the visitor at the museum as being comparable to an encounter with a three-dimensional work of art.
The commission offered Bunshaft the chance to design a freestanding art museum on a conspicuous site and for an important person. Joseph Hirshhorn (1899–1981) was a wealthy investor whose fortune came from uranium and oil mining. His collecting was Pantagruelian. He bought contemporary art in quantity, and, for the most part, he bought well: Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, Larry Rivers, and Pablo Picasso, among others. No midcentury collection was so highly prized or so large (about ten thousand pieces), and cities worldwide courted Hirshhorn for the chance to house it in perpetuity. In early 1966 the president of the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley, persuaded Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to give a lunch at the White House to convince Hirshhorn that his collection would be the focus of national attention on the Mall. For Ripley, the addition of the museum to the city allowed Washington to become an American “art capital, second only to New York.”
“Is it a sculpture or a building is what I am wondering?”
It went without saying that the museum would not be traditional. Hirshhorn wanted a modern design, and Ripley understood the importance of distinguishing the new museum from neighboring buildings. A list of potential architects, assembled at the end of 1966, included Philip C. Johnson, Louis I. Kahn, Roche & Dinkeloo, Marcel Breuer, Carlo Scarpa, and SOM. Ripley, by some accounts, had already decided on Bunshaft. The year before, Nathaniel Owings — then in Washington working on plans for Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall, and someone who, like Ripley, thrived on dreams — advanced the name of Chuck Bassett, an SOM partner in San Francisco.
Although these plans were purely speculative, since no agreement had been reached on the gift, Bassett presented a partially underground museum echoing the recent success of Kevin Roche at the Oakland Museum (1968). According to Bunshaft (who was not there at the time), Hirshhorn said: “You are not going to bury my museum in the ground.” Though Bunshaft’s difficulty in getting along with clients was sometimes seen as his Achilles’ heel, he and Hirshhorn hit it off instantly: both were children of Jewish immigrants, as Bunshaft noted, and “we both kind of shoot from the hip.”
Once the site on the south side of the Mall had been settled, Ripley suggested a circular plan for the museum, either persuaded by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1959) or possibly by John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial (1943). At the commission meeting on 21 June 1967, Bunshaft answered questions from the other commissioners. It was an awkward encounter: never had a sitting commissioner discussed his own building before the commission. The meeting is important for another reason, too, for it is the only surviving record of a presentation by Bunshaft of one of his own buildings. In discussing the Hirshhorn he became discursive, narrating the design process and even revealing some of the metaphors for his conception of the building. He recounted that the size had been brought down in relation to the Air and Space Museum (six feet lower), that in flattening the profile it had become more horizontal, and how he and the SOM architects had worked to balance views from near and far. Bunshaft made the point that though the building seemed large, its neighbors were much larger, up to eight hundred feet long: “This is a peanut on this scale on this mall, it really is. When you look at that building alone and our little model, the bigger scale might look big, but this is really a peanut, especially against the bulk.”
The issue of size was complicated. Reducing height meant expanding diameter; narrowing the diameter reduced the gallery space; changing proportions, while lowering the mass, made it appear heavier. As Bunshaft told the commission: “I really sweated this thing out. You can’t say make it two hundred feet. It may then get a cockeyed proportion in relation to its height and maybe a heavier looking thing. . . . What I have noticed is this, the more horizontal we make it, it gets less brutal. It has nothing to do with any dimensions, it has to do with the proportions.” Later, after Bunshaft had left the room, Aline Saarinen recalled a private conversation with Bunshaft in which she probed as to how he balanced program and design. In her account she asked, “Gordon, did you make it this diameter because of the program, or did you make it this diameter because you felt it was right on the thing and then fit the program into it?” and he said, “Well, to be very honest, both considerations, but I have enough pride that if I felt it was the wrong size, I would have manipulated the program rather than the building.”
This conversation confirmed what some commissioners suspected. John Carl Warnecke asked, “Is it a sculpture or a building is what I am wondering?” a question intended as criticism from a modernist who thought Bunshaft was verging on “the new formalism” or worse. Bunshaft had been clear in his presentation when dealing with the nature of the exterior. He said, “We studied, trying to break up the surface, expressing some ribbed effect or something, and it is just wrong because everything here [i.e., the buildings around the Mall] has this pattern [i.e., classical ornamentation] and some place there ought to be something simple. This is really a piece of sculpture.” But if it was a work of sculpture it had a complex mandate, as he explained to Theodore Roszak, since the sculpture on the ground around the building and the building itself had to make sense at the scale of the visitor.
The Hirshhorn offered Bunshaft the chance to demonstrate that there was a modern architectural style to link the arts — a dream, perhaps, but also the answer to an anxiety, that architecture would be taken over by “geniuses” from another field. The design, he insisted, was not monumental in scale: it was only raised fourteen feet off the ground; sculpture was typically six to eight feet high, so the relationship between sculpture and building was, Bunshaft thought, “pretty nice.” Both building and sculpture, he suggested, would float together: the building because it was raised off the ground, and the sculpture could populate the ground, in shade under the building itself and in sun in the open courtyard nearby. The building became an architectural glade. The sculptural “columns [supporting the body of the building] are really growing out like a tree.” The soffit has “a leaf pattern, sort of nervy or something . . . a very sculptural thing.” The reference, transcribed as “nervy” at the meeting, could, in fact, be to the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, whose work had been in Bunshaft’s sights since Emhart, at least.
Bunshaft had the practiced architect’s skill at moving the conversation back to favorable ground. The single window and its balcony really formed, as he said, “an old time loggia, somewhat in that feeling.” Would that not, Walton asked, make the building look like a “gigantic piggy bank”? Bunshaft just moved on: “You know, you can call it anything you want. You can call the whole building an old penny or old coin. It looks pretty good in the renderings we have.” What Bunshaft wanted from the commission, and what he ultimately received, was approval of the preliminary design. Mindful of disasters that resulted from changes in commission membership, as with Federal Office Building №5, he wanted to nail down approval as far as was possible.
One part of Bunshaft’s plans met implacable resistance. His proposal to cross the Mall with a sunken sculpture garden would, critics said, either gouge a deep pit across the Mall or have taller sculptures protruding unacceptably. In early May 1971, at a hearing before the National Capital Planning Commission (the planning twin to the Commission of Fine Arts), the members first voted down any intrusion on the Mall and suggested that the sculpture garden be built elsewhere. A newspaper account records Bunshaft’s rage: “Like why don’t you put it in New Jersey?” was his sarcastic outburst.
As completed, the Hirshhorn was slightly smaller in diameter than the preliminary discussion in 1969: 231 feet in diameter, as opposed to 240. It was lower, too, only eighty-one feet high, and the exterior material was Swenson pink granite aggregate, not the travertine Bunshaft had wanted. The building still consisted of a three-story double cylinder raised on four fourteen-foot piers. It was made of cast-in-place concrete. Underneath the cylinder, the cells that Bunshaft had planned at first became nine-foot-deep coffers, and the exhibition galleries had three-foot-deep coffers. (The senior designer was Sherwood A. Smith, and the job captain was Leon Moed.)
Two features of the museum were especially striking: the exterior, with the exception of the loggia on the upper floor, was without exterior windows. In that respect, it recalled Bunshaft’s earlier closed boxes and looked forward to the LBJ Library and Museum. Second, the setting drew from Bunshaft’s allusions to Roman monumentality. The exterior recalls a Roman tomb with a single loggia like the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome; and with coffering underneath and along the piers, it was like the Pantheon with its great cylinder open to the sky. As at the Reynolds Aluminum Headquarters, where Bunshaft displaced the open courtyard, here too he moved the central courtyard eccentrically within the cylinder. Bunshaft thus reproduced some of the sliding optical effects of a classical dome and a drum; looking up from the side produces a rolling circle against circle, an effect, at a much larger scale, comparable to one of Marcel Duchamp’s spinning Rotoreliefs (1935).
The curving walls obviously created problems for hanging art, but Bunshaft must have received assurances from Sweeney, who had been the director of the Guggenheim Museum, that any difficulties could be overcome by temporary radial walls. If the Hirshhorn lacked the fluidity of space and the possibility for orientation found at the Guggenheim, it made up for it with the grand height of the galleries (fifteen feet). Although the failure of the longitudinal cross-Mall sculpture garden was a victory for open space, it had an unfortunate influence on visitors’ perceptions of the museum. In the deep perspective of the cross axis, the building would have been perceived as a focal point, a villa at the end of an allée, rather than just a large object in the distance. Effectively, this change partially explains how it came to be described as a bunker, and what was conceived as a loggia came to be called a gun emplacement.
The Hirshhorn was conceived in the final years of the great era of liberal ambition: one man’s massive art collection, meant to transform a capital city’s world cultural standing. It was completed, of course, in another time: after the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and the burning of American cities, after many of the disasters of Vietnam, after worldwide students protests. At the time of the Hirshhorn dedication in October 1974, Gerald Ford was the president (though indisposed).
Museums, rightthinking opinion now held, should look like Roche’s landscaped Oakland Museum (1968) or Louis Kahn’s deliberately contextual Yale Center for British Art (1974), inaugurated in the same year as the Hirshhorn. Paul Goldberger thought the Hirshhorn read from the street “only as a gesture of urbanistic arrogance.” Though the answer lay partly with society, Goldberger wondered how Bunshaft could have traded the lightness of Lever House for this modern monumentality: “It may not be altogether fair in this case to cite the connections between monumental, banal buildings and totalitarianism, for this building’s intentions are not really sinister. But such a fortress is indeed an odd sort of structure in which to house art, and while the choice of such pompous monumentality may well have been made in good faith, it nonetheless calls into question the judgment of the architect and his client.” Huxtable, substantially in agreement, thought SOM had committed “persistent, monumental . . . environmental abuse.” It was a “maimed monument on a maimed mall,” “environmental effrontery,” and “a male chauvinist marriage of building and art.” For her, the single window evoked a “Mussolini-style balcony” and the overall design was about as interesting as a “bomb shelter.” Progressive Architecture astutely thought the Hirshhorn a “period piece,” addressing questions from another era.
Today, everyone seems to agree that the 1950s and early 1960s, the period of metal and glass, was when Bunshaft and SOM were at their best. Whether later generations will share today’s sentiment remains to be seen. Will they ever warm to Bunshaft’s concrete buildings from the late 1960s and the 1970s? With the renewed fashion for brutalism in architecture, will Bunshaft’s work at the Hirshhorn yet become a popular favorite? Time will tell.
Read more about SOM’s history:
What’s In a Bunshaft?
A new book untangles the legacy of one of SOM’s most famous (and difficult) designers.