Liz Diller

A new museum wing ... in a giant bubble

659,313 views • 12:06
Subtitles in 21 languages
Up next
Details About the talk
Transcript 21 languages

We conventionally divide space into private and public realms, and we know these legal distinctions very well because we've become experts at protecting our private property and private space. But we're less attuned to the nuances of the public. What translates generic public space into qualitative space? I mean, this is something that our studio has been working on for the past decade. And we're doing this through some case studies.


A large chunk of our work has been put into transforming this neglected industrial ruin into a viable post-industrial space that looks forward and backward at the same time. And another huge chunk of our work has gone into making relevant a site that's grown out of sync with its time. We've been working on democratizing Lincoln Center for a public that doesn't usually have $300 to spend on an opera ticket. So we've been eating, drinking, thinking, living public space for quite a long time. And it's taught us really one thing, and that is to truly make good public space, you have to erase the distinctions between architecture, urbanism, landscape, media design and so on. It really goes beyond distinction.


Now we're moving onto Washington, D.C. and we're working on another transformation, and that is for the existing Hirshhorn Museum that's sited on the most revered public space in America, the National Mall. The Mall is a symbol of American democracy. And what's fantastic is that this symbol is not a thing, it's not an image, it's not an artifact, actually it's a space, and it's kind of just defined by a line of buildings on either side.


It's a space where citizens can voice their discontent and show their power. It's a place where pivotal moments in American history have taken place. And they're inscribed in there forever — like the march on Washington for jobs and freedom and the great speech that Martin Luther King gave there. The Vietnam protests, the commemoration of all that died in the pandemic of AIDS, the march for women's reproductive rights, right up until almost the present. The Mall is the greatest civic stage in this country for dissent. And it's synonymous with free speech, even if you're not sure what it is that you have to say. It may just be a place for civic commiseration.


There is a huge disconnect, we believe, between the communicative and discursive space of the Mall and the museums that line it to either side. And that is that those museums are usually passive, they have passive relationships between the museum as the presenter and the audience, as the receiver of information. And so you can see dinosaurs and insects and collections of locomotives and all of that, but you're really not involved; you're being talked to.


When Richard Koshalek took over as director of the Hirshhorn in 2009, he was determined to take advantage of the fact that this museum was sited at the most unique place: at the seat of power in the U.S. And while art and politics are inherently and implicitly together always and all the time, there could be some very special relationship that could be forged here in its uniqueness.


The question is, is it possible ultimately for art to insert itself into the dialogue of national and world affairs? And could the museum be an agent of cultural diplomacy? There are over 180 embassies in Washington D.C. There are over 500 think tanks. There should be a way of harnessing all of that intellectual and global energy into, and somehow through, the museum. There should be some kind of brain trust.


So the Hirshhorn, as we began to think about it, and as we evolved the mission, with Richard and his team — it's really his life blood. But beyond exhibiting contemporary art, the Hirshhorn will become a public forum, a place of discourse for issues around arts, culture, politics and policy. It would have the global reach of the World Economic Forum. It would have the interdisciplinarity of the TED Conference. It would have the informality of the town square. And for this new initiative, the Hirshhorn would have to expand or appropriate a site for a contemporary, deployable structure.


This is it. This is the Hirshhorn — so a 230-foot-diameter concrete doughnut designed in the early '70s by Gordon Bunshaft. It's hulking, it's silent, it's cloistered, it's arrogant, it's a design challenge. Architects love to hate it. One redeeming feature is it's lifted up off the ground and it's got this void, and it's got an empty core kind of in the spirit and that facade very much corporate and federal style.


And around that space, the ring is actually galleries. Very, very difficult to mount shows in there. When the Hirshhorn opened, Ada Louise Huxstable, the New York Times critic, had some choice words: "Neo-penitentiary modern." "A maimed monument and a maimed Mall for a maimed collection."


Almost four decades later, how will this building expand for a new progressive program? Where would it go? It can't go in the Mall. There is no space there. It can't go in the courtyard. It's already taken up by landscape and by sculptures. Well there's always the hole. But how could it take the space of that hole and not be buried in it invisibly? How could it become iconic? And what language would it take?


The Hirshhorn sits among the Mall's monumental institutions. Most are neoclassical, heavy and opaque, made of stone or concrete. And the question is, if one inhabits that space, what is the material of the Mall? It has to be different from the buildings there. It has to be something entirely different. It has to be air. In our imagination, it has to be light. It has to be ephemeral. It has to be formless. And it has to be free.




So this is the big idea. It's a giant airbag. The expansion takes the shape of its container and it oozes out wherever it can — the top and sides. But more poetically, we like to think of the structure as inhaling the democratic air of the Mall, bringing it into itself. The before and the after.


It was dubbed "the bubble" by the press. That was the lounge. It's basically one big volume of air that just oozes out in every direction. The membrane is translucent. It's made of silcon-coated glass fiber. And it's inflated twice a year for one month at a time.


This is the view from the inside. So you might have been wondering how in the world did we get this approved by the federal government. It had to be approved by actually two agencies. And one is there to preserve the dignity and sanctity of the Mall. I blush whenever I show this. It is yours to interpret.


But one thing I can say is that it's a combination of iconoclasm and adoration. There was also some creative interpretation involved. The Congressional Buildings Act of 1910 limits the height of buildings in D.C. to 130 feet, except for spires, towers, domes and minarets. This pretty much exempts monuments of the church and state. And the bubble is 153 ft. That's the Pantheon next to it. It's about 1.2 million cubic feet of compressed air. And so we argued it on the merits of being a dome.


So there it is, very stately, among all the stately buildings in the Mall. And while this Hirshhorn is not landmarked, it's very, very historically sensitive. And so we couldn't really touch its surfaces. We couldn't leave any traces behind. So we strained it from the edges, and we held it by cables. It's a study of some bondage techniques, which are actually very important because it's hit by wind all the time. There's one permanent steel ring at the top, but it can't be seen from any vantage point on the Mall.


There are also some restrictions about how much it could be lit. It glows from within, it's translucent. But it can't be more lit than the Capitol or some of the monuments. So it's down the hierarchy on lighting.


So it comes to the site twice a year. It's taken off the delivery truck. It's hoisted. And then it's inflated with this low-pressure air. And then it's restrained with the cables. And then it's ballasted with water at the very bottom.


This is a very strange moment where we were asked by the bureaucracy at the Mall how much time would it take to install. And we said, well the first erection would take one week. And they really connected with that idea. And then it was really easy all the way through. So we didn't really have that many hurdles, I have to say, with the government and all the authorities.


But some of the toughest hurdles have been the technical ones. This is the warp and weft. This is a point cloud. There are extreme pressures. This is a very, very unusual building in that there's no gravity load, but there's load in every direction.


And I'm just going to zip through these slides. And this is the space in action. So flexible interior for discussions, just like this, but in the round — luminous and reconfigurable. Could be used for anything, for performances, films, for installations. And the very first program will be one of cultural dialogue and diplomacy organized in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations.


Form and content are together here. The bubble is an anti-monument. The ideals of participatory democracy are represented through suppleness rather than rigidity.


Art and politics occupy an ambiguous site outside the museum walls, but inside of the museum's core, blending its air with the democratic air of the Mall. And the bubble will inflate hopefully for the first time at the end of 2013.


Thank you.



How do you make a great public space inside a not-so-great building? Liz Diller shares the story of creating a welcoming, lighthearted — even, dare we say it, sexy — addition to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. (From The Design Studio session at TED2012, guest-curated by Chee Pearlman and David Rockwell.)

About the speaker
Liz Diller · Designer

Liz Diller and her maverick firm DS+R bring a groundbreaking approach to big and small projects in architecture, urban design and art — playing with new materials, tampering with space and spectacle in ways that make you look twice.

Liz Diller and her maverick firm DS+R bring a groundbreaking approach to big and small projects in architecture, urban design and art — playing with new materials, tampering with space and spectacle in ways that make you look twice.