Places That Work: Hirshhorn

The building that houses the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is an exquisite disc that enhances the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, the Hirshhorn is shaped like a perfectly round donut that rests on four giant piers, 14 feet above ground level (museum visitors also have access to a lower level).  The hollow, cylindrical shape of the building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and opened in 1974, is why this is a place that works.

Curved paths draw us forward and invite us to investigate surprises that await us just out of sight. Such paths can be anywhere, in gardens, department stores, or museums. Thus the building’s shape encourages exploring the art collection. The circular pathways also minimize the risk of moving forward quickly if the art you encounter on a floor isn’t something you like. But as you continue to walk forward you’ll eventually enter a space where you find art to your liking.  In the worst case, if none of the art pleases you, you’ll still end up back where you started without needing to backtrack.

The diameter of the central courtyard at the Hirshhorn is wide enough so that the galleries are sunlit through the windows that line the inner wall of the museum.  All that sunlight is great for human wellbeing. Too, the building’s shape is entirely consistent with the art it displays–contemporary and modern art; the same zeitgeist underlies the Hirshhorn’s architecture and artwork. This lovely donut, stuffed with art, will sweeten your day in the U.S. capital.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at

Series Posts: Places that Work

Categories: Cultural Architecture