After three months of renovations in collaboration with acclaimed Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, the Hirshhorn Museum opened the doors to its sleek new lobby to the public Feb. 23. Conceived with the building’s circular shape in mind and inspired by natural beauty, Sugimoto’s space is both simple and stunning.
An Act of Congress established the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1966 to showcase Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s collection of modern art, and the museum officially opened in 1974. The museum was originally designed between 1967 and 1971 by Gordon Bunshaft, who envisioned the building as a modern, sculptural in contrast to the more classical National Mall institutions, like the Capitol or the Smithsonian Castle.
Although Sugimoto’s schematic is more modern and less industrial than the original lobby Bunshaft designed, it fits seamlessly into the 44-year-old building’s aesthetic. This integration is largely because of Sugimoto’s extensive use of circular forms, which mirror the shape of the gallery’s space itself. From the shell-like chairs to the glass tables, the architectural elements all flow together.
The most intriguing aspect of the lobby is Sugimoto’s pair of semicircular tree root tables with glass tops. These tables were inspired by the ancient Japanese nutmeg tree, according to the Hirshhorn Museum website. The trees represent life, and a close look at the roots reveals their profound symbolism. Tangled and messy, the branches are anything but orderly. Just as humans must navigate the world by riding its ebbing and flowing waves, the roots weave in and out of each other as if trying to find the right path to existence.
These semicircular tables serve not only as fascinating pieces of art, but also as functional coffee tables. The experience admiring the intertwined roots is further enhanced by an espresso or gelato in hand. These food items can be purchased at the Dolcezza Cafe, also designed by Sugimoto. With a menu featuring tea, coffee, hot chocolate, cider, espresso drinks, pastries and homemade gelato, the cafe offers delicacies for all art aficionados to enjoy.
Despite its openness and modern design elements, the renovation leaves room for improvement. One eyesore in the lobby is Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s chandelier, “Your oceanic feeling.” Although its spherical shape should complement the rest of the furniture, the art feels out of place and altogether too distracting, most likely because of the harsh juxtaposition of its artificial glow with the natural light encompassing the lobby.
Additionally, although the new cafe adds an air of comfort to the space, with only two tables and a handful of chairs, the space does not let visitors truly enjoy this addition.
Sugimoto’s design of the Hirshhorn Museum’s minimalistic lobby is soothing, but not without flaws. Still, despite out-of-place design elements and a lack of adequate seating, the newly renovated lobby provides a welcoming place to unwind with coffee and reflect on the art after touring the galleries.