Arts Desk

The Hirshhorn Bubble: Audacious, but Is It Art? Our Critics Weigh In

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If Hirshhorn Museum Director Richard Koshalek gets his way—and it seems he will—then beginning in 2011 the National Mall will get a pretty striking makeover. Well, at least for two months a year.

News of the plan to install a giant bubble atop the Hirshhorn—the inflatable, removable, 145-foot structure would snake through the museum's central courtyard—broke this week, and you can catch up on all the nitty gritty over at Housing Complex. Here at Arts Desk, though, our questions are more aesthetic: Is the bubble a playful addition or a bulbous eyesore? Is it compelling art in and of itself, or a gaudy spectacle? We're not sure, so we asked our art critics. Read how they reacted to the design after the jump:

Critic Louis Jacobson digs the bubble and applauds the plan's political savvy:

Regardless of what you think of the artistic merits of the proposed, bulbous, temporary addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—and my initial take is favorable, even if it looks a little like a napkin/napkin-ring combo—the proposal's greatest achievement may be its political savvy. Task No. 1: Avoid a prolonged battle with the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by making the structure temporary, and thus not subject to the panels' review. (Remember the long slog over the mall's World War II memorial? Wouldn't want to repeat that.) Task No. 2: Be frugal. The reported budget is a modest $5 million, an advisable approach for these recessionary times. Task No. 3: Make it populist. Like Michael Graves' scaffolding for the Washington Monument's restoration in 1999 (sponsored by Target!), the Hirshhorn addition is casual-looking enough not to seem elitist. Politicians wouldn't want that. Interestingly, the architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro, which designed the proposal, is based in New York and is best known for its work on such Big Apple landmarks as Lincoln Center, the High Line, and Governor's Island Park. But man, the firm seems to have figured out how to navigate official Washington better than most locals. They might just pull this one off.

Pace Blake Gopnik, critic Maura Judkis thinks the bubble is good news for the Hirshhorn's art:

The Washington Post's Blake Gopnik fears that the planned Hirshhorn balloon will distract people from the main attraction: the art housed within the building. I doubt that very much. If the space will be used for specific programming, like performances, lectures, and films, as planned, visitors independent to these events will be drawn to the balloon to experience and enjoy it—but then they'll go inside the museum to see the art, just as they always have. The balloon would be a far more welcoming space for events than the Hirshhorn's current lecture space, the small and musty basement-level Ring Auditorium—so why is the status quo preferable? If anything, the addition will bring more traffic from curious passers-by to a institution that, while one of the most-visited modern art museums in America, faces steep competition from the other attractions on the mall—a problem furthered by the building's off-putting (to some), hulking concrete structure. The levity is a lovely contrast. So, let's lighten up—the Hirshhorn is.

City Lights editor Mike Riggs is confused and fears for the safety of kittens:

I have looked and looked and looked at the strange picture of the bubble in the art museum. And, after much looking, have concluded that I simply do not understand art. The bubble looks pretty and weird—two integral characteristics of art—but I would rather attend a lecture at the high-traffic T-Mobile store in Columbia Heights than sit inside this thing, betting my sanity and my perfectly coiffed mane against the odds that some peckerhead with no appreciation for weird and pretty art might prick a hole in the bubble and suffocate us all. Also, I am slightly disappointed that it is not the same bubble on the cover of Stephen King's new book, which I haven't read, but which has a long list of characters in the beginning, just like the Bible. Will the Hirshhorn have a list of Bible characters? Probably not. Is this weird and pretty bubble better than all those million-dollar I.M. Pei panels at the National Gallery? Yes, until it collapses and kills a kitten.

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Images courtesy of Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

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Comments

  1. #1

    So, if I understand Mr. Riggs' critique correctly, his dislike of the project is based on his concern for the safety of the project? Wow... I bet the architects never thought of that! He's brilliant and has probably avoided a major catastrophe! Does he get paid for writing this stuff or does he come up with this stuff for free?

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