Hiroshi Sugimoto to Lead Renovations to Hirshhorn Museum Lobby

The celebrated Japanese artist will oversee the restoration—the museum’s first since the Gordon Bunshaft–designed building opened 42 years ago.

sugimoto renovation hirshhorn museum lobby
Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum

Japanese architecture firm New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL) will reimagine the Hirshhorn Museum’s Gordon Bunshaft–designed lobby in what will be the first cohesive redesign in the museum’s 42-year history, according to a press release issued Monday. NMRL, which unifies the work of artist Hiroshi Sugimoto with that of architect Tomoyuki Sakakida, aims to enhance the museum’s arrival experience with updated digital signage, new custom furnishings, and a sculptural light installation, Your oceanic feeling (2015), by artist Olafur Eliasson. The renovations will also include the addition of a 20-foot-long coffee and gelato bar by local proprietor Dolcezza, which has operated a pop-up shipping container shop in the Hirshhorn’s courtyard since February of this year.

Sugimoto’s inspiration for the Hirshhorn lobby stems from the intertwined roots of an ancient Japanese nutmeg tree, and responds to the museum’s cylindrical shape (locals affectionately refer to it as the Brutalist Doughnut). “I became fascinated by the roots of an enormous tree, which fanned out to form a large circle, and I decided that this was the circle I would install in the Hirshhorn lobby—a symbol of life,” Sugimoto explained in the release. “All art takes its inspiration from the power inherent in nature, and my hope is that as visitors enter the museum, they will experience the balance of the man-made and natural circles.”

As museums go, the Hirshhorn is a place that works, but its ground-level approach could use the NMRL refresh. Although in recent months it has hosted walls of orchids (from the neighboring Botanic Garden) and personalized notes (as part of an installation by Yoko Ono), the lobby has largely served as a pass-through area between entry and escalators. NMRL plans to restore the lobby to Bunshaft’s original vision of transparency by removing dark window coatings to allow better views northward through the museum to the National Mall, while retaining the signature coffered ceilings, exposed aggregate concrete walls, and terrazzo floors that contribute to the Hirshhorn’s eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Bronze countertops at the welcome desk and coffee bar echo the Hirshhorn’s existing material palette, and the coffee bar will include sliding partitions faced in diamond-shaped, shingle-like tin plates reminiscent of a 1930s-era technique of Japanese fireproofing.

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“Hiroshi Sugimoto is an internationally accomplished artist able to move seamlessly between art and design,” Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum, said in the release. “In our case, his unique aesthetic brings a renewed sense of sophistication and elegance to the lobby while at the same honoring Gordon Bunshaft’s original intentions.” Chiu also noted that this is not the first collaboration with Sugimoto: The Hirshhorn exhibited a career survey of his work in 2006, and has several of his photographs in its permanent collection, including five that are currently on view from his Seascapes series of the 1990s. Remarking on Sugimoto’s vision for the refreshed lobby, Chiu added, “It is an honor for us to incorporate his work into the museum in a permanent way for visitors to enjoy for years to come.”

The Hirshhorn museum anticipates completion of the lobby update in February 2018.

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