Architectural History of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1969

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  • Groundbreaking for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden occurred in January, 1969, although legislation supporting a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art was passed as early as the 1930s. Latvian immigrant Joseph Hirshhorn donated his extensive modern art and sculpture collection, along with the funds to build the museum. Hirshhorn stated that he wanted to repay the United States for what it had done for him, afforded him opportunities that he would not have been afforded anywhere else in the world.
  • The modern building design was met with controversy from those who opposed a building on the National Mall that was so stark opposite the existing buildings. It stands on the site of the original Army Medical Museum.
  • The design of the Hirshhorn Building subscribes to the modern architecture notion that "form follows function." Architect Gordon Bunshaft was chosen to design the building, and being an art collected himself, he had ideas about how contemporary art should be displayed. Circulation and flow were very key elements in the design, as were interior, windowless galleries to display those works that are light sensitive.
  • The perfectly geometrical cylindrical building was built using precast concrete mixed with crushed pink granite. The building is elevated, sitting atop four large pillars thus leaving the large plaza open for displaying sculptures and for visitor enjoyment. The circular fountain that was installed became one of the museum's key features. There is only one window in the entire building, a panoramic view window that faces the National Mall.
  • The outdoor Sculpture Garden was envisioned in the plan since the beginning, presumably because Joseph Hirshhorn displayed most of his sculptures on the outside lawn of his Connecticut home. The museum opened to the public in 1974.


  • Bunshaft, Gordon 1909-1990
  • Hirshhorn, Joseph H
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • Army Medical Library and Museum Building


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • 1969-1974
  • 20th century


  • Art
  • Art museums
  • Architecture
  • Sculpture gardens
  • Museum architecture
  • Granite
  • Art, Modern
  • Architecture, Modern


Washington (D.C.)


  • --Modern
  • --21st Century

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