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Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Controversial Revitalization of Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden Gets the Go-Ahead

The US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) on July 15 voted 5–2 in favor of approving Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s final proposed redesign of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. The plans will next be submitted to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which will rule on the matter September 2.

Hirshhorn officials selected Sugimoto for the revamp following his renovation of the museum’s lobby. His plan for the sculpture garden unites museum, plaza, and garden via a flexible organic design that will increase space available for the museum’s modernist bronzes by nearly 50 percent. The extant reflecting pool, designed in 1974 by Gordon Bunshaft, the museum’s architect, will be connected to an expanded water feature with terraced steps surrounding a platform meant to serve as a flexible space for sculpture and performance art. Two new entrances will be added to the garden, which was redesigned in 1981 by landscape architect Lester Collins, as will a network of accessible paths. The partition wall dividing museum from garden will be replaced by a lower, stacked-stone structure meant to mimic Japanese dry-stacking and to provide acoustic baffling for live performances.

It is this last element of the design that raised hackles, with detractors calling the stacked stone out of sync with the aesthetic of the garden, in which all existing structures are rendered in aggregate concrete. Speaking with Artnet News, Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, decried the decision of the CFA, whose ranks were recently purged by the Biden administration, contending that “the Hirshhorn benefitted at the Commission of Fine Arts today from the commissioners’ lack of experience, the commissioners’ lack of understanding of commission policies and procedures, and because for the first time in some 20 years, not one of the commissioners is a landscape architect.” Landscape architect Laurie Olin, who offered his opinion in a paper he wrote for the CFA, came down on the opposite side of the stacked-stone wall, characterizing the present sculpture garden as “tired” and Sugimoto’s design as “far superior.”

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