Arts Desk

The National Mall and the Hirshhorn Bubble: Too Many Studies, Not Enough Building

The latest issue of architecture journal Clog is devoted to the National Mall. Among several dozen short essays about the National Park Service-regulated expanse in downtown Washington, one of the standouts comes from Ennead Architects, a New York-based firm that has put in 15 years on various Mall projects. The unsigned editorial is short, but it delivers a message that should register with anyone following the slowly developing Hirshhorn Bubble: "As we have come to learn, in Washington, D.C., there is plenty of money for studies but little money for architecture."


Ennead may feel stung by its involvement with the ongoing restoration of the 1881 Arts and Industries Building and the development of the 35,000-square-foot Education Center at the Wall, an underground project for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that is just now getting underway. "The nature of the Mall itself is incredibly diverse," Ennead acknowledges, but goes on to say, "The Mall also happens to be the epicenter of one of the most over-regulated cities in the country from the standpoint of architecture and planning." Ennead makes no such complaints about its experiences building the Newseum, focusing instead on the federally regulated Mall.

"These factors, combined with pervasive and shifting political pressures; layer upon layer of institutional and governmental oversight; and perpetual short-term budget constraints make the Mall and its vicinity an incredibly difficult place to design and construct buildings," the editorial reads. "It is perhaps not surprising that after 15 years only a small percentage of Ennead's effort on the Mall has yielded actual built work."

The problems plaguing the Hirshhorn's Bubble fit Ennead's narrative: too many studies, not enough architecture. Two of the three feasibility studies conducted in order to make way for the Bubble are still ongoing, even as the Hirshhorn's self-imposed spring deadline draws near. Yet, barring a big fundraising push, all of the studies will be for naught. So while the Castle and the Hirshhorn may soon figure out the technical ins and outs of building the Bubble, the project still may falter for its inability to pass a modest fundraising bar.

Some would say good riddance. Tyler Green at Artinfo writes that the programming for the Bubble has nothing to do with art, and so he wants nothing to do with the Bubble. That's a fair objection, but the conference-oriented programming for the Bubble could quickly change. The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott, meanwhile, is much more sympathetic.

What does it mean if the Bubble succeeds? It would put a progressive piece of architecture on the Mall. No matter how you feel about attending American Enterprise Institute lectures under a bulbous dome, no matter how you feel about museum directors who put the campus before the art, that is a feat. Going in, nobody knew what it would mean to erect an inflatable pavilion inside the Hirshhorn's courtyard. To erect a structure like this on the National Mall—not in Berlin or Tokyo or on some private college campus, but right there on the federal yard, where process is hostile to experiments and space is dwindling for architecture of any kind—would represent an important moment in the architectural history of the United States that the National Mall serves to record.

What does it mean if the Bubble fails? One possibility is that no one will try any sort of ambitious architectural pavilion ever again. That's reason enough to support a low-cost architectural innovation with a dubious mission—a mission that could easily change. Root for the bait-and-switch. Ten years from now, I don't want to read an essay by Liz Diller about how it's impossible to get anything done in Washington.

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  • Philimus

    This is ridiculous. The planned Hirshhorn Bubble is by no means low cost (think at least $9-$11 million instead)and even the author of this article concedes its mission is "dubious" at best. I believe "boondoggle" is the correct word to describe such a project.

    Look, the problem here isn't money to fund architectural studies. It's the lack of any coherent purpose for building/inflating this damn thing in the first place. Even the Hirshhorn Museum director and the people pushing the hardest for the Bubble can't say what they would do with it or why it's a worthwhile venture.

    On top of that, are any of the Bubble's supporters reading the news these days? All of the Smithsonian's museums are likely to be facing budget cuts resulting from scaled back federal appropriations in the near future. Heck, the Institution is already struggling to come up with the resources needed to finish construction of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.

    Under those circumstances, this is probably the worst time to be trying to construct the Bubble project. The whole thing sounds like an idea dreamed up by folks with little concept of the need to spend even privately raised funds wisely. I'm all in favor of modern art, but at a point in our nation's history where the tough economy is making it difficult for many people to simply survive, can the Hirshhorn really justify fund raising for a Bubble it doesn't even know what it wants to do with yet? Color me skeptical.

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