Sited halfway between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden is a one-and-a-half-acre, recessed garden displaying over 60 works of sculpture year-round. Sculpture formed nearly a quarter of philanthropist Joseph Hirshhorn’s bequest of 6,600 works of art to the nation. For this reason, he stipulated that an outdoor garden be part of the new Smithsonian museum, authorized by Congress in November 1966 to house his collection. Gordon Bunschaft, of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, an avid art collector, himself, designed the four-acre complex. The Joseph Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened to the public in October 1974.
Bunschaft’s austere design for the garden was consistent with that of the cylindrical museum building and typical of the minimalist mode then fashionable with many artists and architects. The plan divided the garden into terraces at several levels with a central reflecting pool. Pebbles on the garden floor, matching the concrete-aggregate walls coupled with minimal plantings, gave the overall effect of Japanese Zen gardens, popular in the West during the 1960s.
Three years after opening, the Smithsonian hired landscape architect Lester Collins to provide accessible surfaces and ramps from the Mall, as well as extensive landscaping to provide shade for the blistering sun of Washington summers. The garden re-opened in 1981, with lawns, trees, and climbing vines. As one critic observed, the new design better reveals the sculpture, allowing the artworks to appear and disappear as the spectator moves about the space.