The Art of a Round Museum

It’s World Architecture Day on Monday Oct. 6th, and one of our most famous buildings is celebrating with a week of activities – it’s the Hirshhorn, of course, in all its Brutalist glory.

Let’s take a look at how the Hirshhorn got its start and the unique round spaces it provides for modern art.

a maimed monument on a maimed Mall

Ada Louise Huxtable, NY Times architectural critic, 1974

New York had its Guggenheim, but it was controversial for D.C. to get its own round museum when the Hirshhorn opened in 1974. You can see how radical a change it was by looking at what was on the spot before – the Army Medical Museum, a grim hulk containing disturbing exhibits and severed body parts. Designed by the same architect who designed the Smithsonian Arts and Industries and the Castle, the three buildings made a perfect row on the Mall from the 1880’s until the Medical Museum was torn down to make way for the Hirshhorn.

The choice to tear down a historic building and to replace it with a modernistic design reflected the changing tastes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This era also saw the building of the Air and Space Museum (1976), the East Wing of the National Gallery (1978), and the Watergate (1971) along with many other modernistic transformations of the city.

Whether you like or hate the architecture of the building, it does provide display possibilities that no other museum in D.C. can. Here, we take a look at some of the Hirshhorn’s displays that have taken advantage of the roundness of the building.


The outside of the Hirshhorn is a smooth cylinder, only interrupted by one strip of windows. There have been a few projections on the exterior which take advantage of this large blank expanse.

Doug Aitken, Song 1
Krzysztof Wodiczko projection, re-staged on the Hirshhorn in 2018 from the original in 1988


The Hirshhorn is often referred to as a “doughnut with legs,” with a large open courtyard. While not used frequently for art, the courtyard is very effective for some displays.

Ai Weiwei, Zodiac Heads
Shadow/Casters – figures in the windows of the museum designed to be seen from the courtyard

On view now in the plaza are ten works by the artist Lee Ufan. This is the first time that there has been a site-specific work commissioned for the entire 4 acres around the plaza.

Lee talked about his work last week when it first went on view. He called the Hirshhorn building a “perfect mess” and said that his works were designed to crack open the perfection of the space with installations that led to contemplation, understanding, and mystery.

Interior hall

The interior hall is a large circle running around the inside of the entire “doughnut.” There have been some site-specific works which have been created by the artists along the entire 400 foot stretch, as temporary exhibitions for a year or more.

Mark Bradford, Pickett’s charge, on view through 2021
Linn Meyers drawing her work Our View from Here, on view 2016-2017. She covered the entire 400 feet with a series of rippling lines drawn with a graffiti marker, working long hours over 70 days.


The interior spaces in the Hirshhorn offer areas for both traditional displays and some that take advantage of the wide expanses of curving space, like these exhibits:

Washington Ballet dancers in front of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse exhibit
Ai Weiwei, Trace

Since it was designed fifty years ago, the Hirshhorn has grown to be a major institution with many extremely popular exhibits. Despite liking what is displayed inside, people are still divided in opinions about the building’s design, as expressed by two of the major architectural critics of the building’s era:

born‐dead, neo‐penitentiary modern

Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, 1974

the biggest piece of abstract art in town

Benjamin Forgey, Washington Post, 1989

We ourselves love the way the Hirshhorn can bring modern art alive in a way that no other space in D.C. can.

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