Reinflating the Bubble
The bubble is re-inflating. This time, however, history will repeat itself neither as farce nor as tragedy, but as fantasy: all fixed, frozen things will not so much fade away as they will be filled with air and become fun.
I am referring, of course, to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s proposal to periodically inflate a bubble in the middle of the Hirshhorn Museum’s D.C. donut. The very emblem of the bunker mentality in art, and one of the ugliest buildings on the National Mall (though it has some rivals), the Hirshhorn will remain in its serene indifference to use or site, but now be filled in spring and autumn with a blue balloon that will bulge out its sides and its top. It will be a site for performances, screenings, and discussions. What is most important, it will be a place for people and art to come together.
The bubble lies at the intersection of three phenomena. One is the dissolution of architecture into event structures. The second is the breakdown of the monolithic museum model, in which such institutions are just machines for storing and exhibiting art—the former in unseen vaults, the latter through exhibitions. The third is the economic conditions that rule out any massive building projects that are not already funded.
DSR has been at the forefront of developing structures for the first phenomenon, though the event as architectural scaffolding was first brought into public currency by the architect Bernard Tschumi, who argued in his 1994 book Event-Cities for structures that would form stages for collective, unplanned, and intersection actions. A child of ’68, Tschumi dreamed of hollowing out architecture’s monumental core for the people.
DSR has carried this dream out through site-specific installations and buildings, of which the most notable was the 2002 Blur Building, a cloud of artificial mist hovering over a Swiss lake. This was a phenomenal building, one that densified air and humidity, thus creating an awareness of atmospheric conditions. Its effect was to change social relations as you felt your way through its shrouded maze. There was nothing to do there but to discover space and the ghosts it contained and, all the way at the top, drink bottled water in a “water bar,” thereby imbibing the very essence of the space you had just inhabited. DSR is continuing this kind of design with proposals such as a recent one for a hybrid museum/event space that will telescope from compact gallery to cavernous convention hall on New York’s Penn Yards.
Museums, meanwhile, have realized that their monumental nature both attracts and repels. They are destinations but once inside, visitors find themselves routed, framed, shushed, and otherwise overwhelmed. They are often bored. Spaces are static, and the tools to bring people and art together limited. As a result, many of us museum directors have been experimenting with activities that make the art museum in particular “evergreen”: something is always happening there; it is an active social space, and it extends beyond the walls of the museum building. The fetishized art object remains at the core of the museum experience. However, just as churches these days have everything from daycare centers to coffee shops, and from schools to television programs, to get you to that one holy moment, so museums must embed that experience within a web of social and educational activities that bring the art and people together.
The Hirshhorn Bubble is the perfect site for such activities. It is also a joyous critique of the art museum as monument, offering an alternative to the idea that we need to continually expand our buildings. After all, those then remain empty too often and leave our great works of art hanging in bright new spaces without enough of an audience. Like DSR’s designs for Lincoln Center, which replaced grand schemes for new structures with strategic incisions and additions, the Bubble shows us architecture that opens up, invites, stages, invigorates and socializes. And all of that at the kind of price we can afford post-Bubble.