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On Aug. 23, 2011, an earthquake centered nine miles south of Mineral, Va., shook the pinnacles and finials of the Washington National Cathedral. The 5.8-magnitude quake cracked the pillar of the Washington Monument and rattled jars off the shelves of the National Museum of Natural History. Dust rose and plaster fell in the 1857 Smithsonian castle, where geotechnical scientist and Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough reportedly ticked off the seconds between seismic waves. It could be 2014 before all the damage done to the cultural institutions of the nation’s capital is assessed and repaired—save for one structure’s.

Engineers can easily describe the impact the earthquake had on that building, because it exists only on paper. If and when the Seasonal Inflatable Structure emerges from the hollow center of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, its design will reflect testing intended to make it disaster-proof, even in the event of something as unexpected as an earthquake in Washington.

If and when the Inflatable is first inflated, perhaps in fall 2014—that’s the latest, and perhaps the last, aspirational launch date—the architectural pavilion known informally as the Bubble and somewhat more officially as the Bloomberg Balloon could serve as another kind of proof: that Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek’s trust in architecture in art is not misplaced, and that his faith in Washington as a cultural capital is not overdetermined. The most strident argument in favor of the Inflatable—designed as a locus for symposia and other educational gatherings—may be that Washington, a city with more than 200 embassies and 500 think tanks, needs another venue for debate and cultural diplomacy.

That’s the thinking behind the pavilion, conceived by the New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to be inflated for several weeks each fall and spring and stored away the rest of the time. The addition fills the 1974 Hirshhorn building like a stomach in a gastric lap band, bubbling out of its central courtyard and playfully disrupting D.C.’s staid monumental core. The Bubble doesn’t add any new square footage to the museum, although the blue silicon-coated glass fiber membrane is sure to freshen the 14,000 square foot plaza it will hem in. The point of building an inflatable bubble pavilion is to put something inside it—and in this case, that means gatherings comparable to the Aspen Ideas Festival or TED Talks. Before the project was delayed, some of Koshalek’s early ideas for the Inflatable included programs on cultural diplomacy and a tie-in to an exhibition on “art and destruction,” assembled with organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. (Programs that were invitation-only were to be simulcast for anyone to see in the museum’s lobby.) The Bubble has been touted as a big idea of an architectural addition, and Koshalek wants to fill it with Big Ideas.

The development of the Inflatable has endured bigger tremors than the D.C. earthquake. For his trouble, Koshalek has earned the skepticism of critics (including me) who say a splashy lecture hall will distract from the Hirshhorn’s central scholarly mission as a contemporary art museum. And the Bubble’s cost has grown since it was announced in December 2009—in part because the design now accounts for earthquakes and derechos. Three trustees have left the Hirshhorn’s board of trustees, with rumors of divisions caused by the Bubble following them through the doors of the Gordon Bunshaft–designed concrete donut. Even if concerns among the board are more logistical than philosophical, addressing them has taken time: The last go-or-no deadline was June 2012. And money: The Bubble might require more funding than convincing at this point.

Within a few months, Koshalek will know whether the project will happen at all, thanks to a self-imposed fundraising deadline. Either outcome is a D.C. quake in the making.

The people who like the Bubble best may be those who like the Hirshhorn the least, at least in terms of architecture. The Bubble is an irregular sphere, while the Hirshhorn is a perfect cylinder. It’s made of air, not concrete. It’s translucent and blue, not severe and dull. If anyone thinks worse of the Hirshhorn than Ada Louise Huxtable, the late New York Times architecture critic who called it “neo-penitentiary modern,” it might be architect Liz Diller, whose firm found a way to make a gag out of the Hirshhorn’s best features.

The National Mall has many virtues, but playfulness isn’t one of them. Newer buildings need to coexist peacefully with their neoclassical elders on the Mall. The curves of the National Museum of the American Indian were toned down so much that the name of the architect, Douglas Cardinal, was eventually struck from the project. The architect Jean Paul Carlhian designed the 1987 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and National Museum of African Art to be almost entirely underground. Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn and I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery are the best examples of contemporary architecture on the Mall, but the only piece of contemporary design between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial that you could truly call evocative is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Since arriving at the Hirshhorn in 2009, Koshalek has sought to make an architectural statement with—or despite—the museum’s edifice. He finally succeeded last year. At 7:45 p.m. on March 22, 2012, the usual throng of joggers on the National Mall began to slow down as they neared the Hirshhorn. A spooky doo-wop song made popular by The Flamingos in 1959 floated from loudspeakers ringing the museum, as the giant head of Tilda Swinton lit up the building’s 360-degree surface.

Doug Aitken’s “SONG1” might not have been Koshalek’s creation, but it’s one after his own heart. In 2010, Koshalek brought in Aitken—a California video artist who likes working with Chloë Sevigny and projecting his videos onto things that are not screens—to talk about moving the museum’s bookstore to the basement. But Aitken changed gears, instead concocting the dreamy “SONG1.” That left the Hirshhorn with a vacancy in its basement. So when the museum moved its lobby-level bookstore downstairs, it brought on Barbara Kruger, the marquee feminist text artist whose axioms about power and commercialism are now plastered all over the basement’s walls.

“This is the beginning of 10 big things,” Koshalek told me on Aitken’s opening night, “and we’re going to land them here at the Hirshhorn like planes at LAX.” He also said the museum was examining whether it could augment its sculpture garden with a kunsthalle, or nonpermanent show space.

Koshalek has been landing big, crowd-attracting, skyline-disrupting architecture projects his entire career. He served as the chair for the committee that selected Frank Gehry to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003 and is one of the hallmarks of the starchitect’s celebrated oeuvre. Koshalek’s relationship with Gehry goes way back: In 1983, Gehry renovated the Little Tokyo warehouse that became the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary), a pop-up satellite of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, that more or less kicked off Koshalek’s two-decade tenure at the institution.

“When I worked on Disney Hall, when I was the chair of the architecture committee, they thought L.A. was going to get cardboard and chain-link,” Koshalek says, alluding to Gehry’s early work with unconventional materials. He also served on the committee that selected Herzog & de Meuron for London’s Tate Modern—that’s another firm whose projects spark controversy but tend to attract begrudging admiration over time. “You are going to have division on a board,” Koshalek says.

The gulf between Koshalek’s splash-first sensibility and the philosophies of trustee boards hasn’t always worked out for him. An effort to bring Gehry to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., cost Koshalek the support of the college and its board. Students protested that the $50 million cost of the research center and digital laboratory was the wrong way to spend. In 2008, the college’s board decided not to renew Koshalek’s contract.

Koshalek and Gehry may not have been a fit for Art Center, but his thinking was well within the mainstream for the late 1990s and early 2000s. Koshalek would have been intimately familiar with the so-called Gehry Effect, named for the supposed economic transformation that Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum brought to Bilbao, Spain. Fifteen years later, civic leaders and cultural institutions have come to question the ability of hard architecture to totally revamp a municipality’s economic reality; in the interim, museums, universities, libraries, theaters, and recital halls across the country began starchitectural expansion projects, the last of which to be approved before the recession are still being finished today.

When Koshalek set about to reshape the Hirshhorn’s public spaces, he didn’t call Gehry, whose record in D.C. consists of a failed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and a politically prickly design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. But Koshalek planned to follow a similar formula: an architect whose work is so sculptural, and so exciting, that the project builds itself.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro makes a good recession-era analog to Frank Gehry. Where Gehry has built his name on sweeping titanium and bleeding-edge building modeling, the New York firm shows off through savvy reuse and subtle effect. The best-known work by Diller Scofidio + Renfro is Manhattan’s elevated outdoor walkway the High Line, which also has an effect named for it that major cities around the nation are now scrambling to recreate.

“We conventionally divide space into private and public realms,” Diller says at the beginning of a March 2012 TED talk about the Hirshhorn and her work to reclaim neglected public spaces. “But we’re less attuned to the nuances of the public. What translates generic public space into qualitative space?”

That the National Mall is one of the most sacred public spaces in the nation doesn’t mean it hasn’t been underthought. (Diller isn’t the only architect working on the question. Three teams of prominent architecture firms won the opportunity to redesign three neglected parts of America’s front yard: the Sylvan Theater, Constitution Gardens, and Union Square.) Diller has said that the concept for the Inflatable comes from the relationship between the Mall and its museums. The Mall is a place meant for marches and rallies, but it is physically bound and defined by museums that don’t play a role in those civic functions. The Inflatable is an effort to physically bring that air inside the museum. Not the protests, maybe, but the spirit of debate symbolized by Washington’s think-tanks, universities, and nonprofits.

“When I first came to the Hirshhorn, and one of the reasons I did come to the Smithsonian, was that I felt that they’re located in a very unique city,” Koshalek says, citing its many embassies and think tanks, which he intends to pull into the programming of the Bubble. “This is the nation’s capital. This institution should be the leader in terms of setting arts and cultural dialogue. Cultural policy is set in Washington, D.C.”

The temporary pavilion didn’t have an official name when it was announced in 2009. But the question of what to call it was obvious once you saw the design: the Bubble.

That changed in September 2010, when Bloomberg L.P. committed a naming grant of at least $1 million for building the structure. In March 2012, Koshalek revealed the official title: the Bloomberg Balloon. A source close to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the company’s owner, says that the gift has not changed. “He remains excited to see the Bloomberg Balloon executed,” the source says.

The original terms of the gift extend the Bloomberg Balloon naming rights from December 2010 through May 2014, with an option to extend the sponsorship for another two years. With a little more than a year left in that arrangement, Koshalek says he simply calls the pavilion the Inflatable.

When it was announced, the Bloomberg gift would have gotten the Inflatable at least one-fifth of the way to becoming a reality. But since then, the project’s costs have inflated faster than the donations. In 2009, the Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called the $5 million price tag “a relatively paltry sum by the standards of recent museum expansions, even in today’s rough economic climate.” But less than a year later, numerous outlets were reporting that the cost of building the Bubble had tripled.

“The numbers bandied about are reckless and uninformed,” Koshalek says. But the cost has nevertheless grown, in part due to structural testing to make the Inflatable indestructible and inflammable. The Hirshhorn’s figure for construction and fabrication is now $8.5 million. That doesn’t account for design and engineering fees, which add another $3 million.

“The Bubble evolved very quickly,” Koshalek says. “If I made any mistake, I underestimated the time it would take.”

Then there are the operating and programming costs. The Smithsonian Institution has pledged $4 million over 10 years toward storing the pavilion during the offseason, inflating it during the spring and fall, providing security, and paying various facilities costs.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

One board member who requested anonymity has described the staffing as a source of concern for trustees, especially given the fuzzy educational mission Koshalek has described for the Bubble. A museum has a curatorial staff, whose skills lend themselves to organizing art shows, but the Inflatable is something else, requiring different skills.

Sure, Koshalek concedes. But staffing for the Inflatable will be as light as the structure itself: The Hirshhorn has already hired two Bubble staff with jargony titles, an “associate director of program partnerships” and a “director of identity.”

During the time of year that the Seasonal Inflatable Structure is Seasonally Inflated, the Hirshhorn will make temporary hires. “We don’t have to build a huge staff to do this,” Koshalek says. His dreams include an international network of curators, artists, and consultants, hired on retainer and paid with honoraria, to submit intelligence and ideas for future programming.

Koshalek swears the Inflatable will engage the Hirshhorn’s curators, too. When the Bubble is inflated, part of its programming will correspond with whatever’s lining the gallery walls of the museum. The rest of the timeshare will go to whichever universities, think tanks, and corporations rent it out—a money-making proposition for the Hirshhorn which could lead to exclusive uses not quite in keeping with Diller’s civic scheme. (And certainly not with the museum’s artistic mission.)

“Four weeks, five weeks, maybe six weeks will be programmed by the Hirshhorn—having to do with exhibitions. How technology is driving culture. How we’re going to connect to the larger world. That’s the purpose,” he says. However, “universities could use the space, lease the space, just like universities lease an auditorium for inauguration.”

By May 2012, the Hirshhorn had raised $8 million in gifts or pledges, including the $4 million from the Castle, toward the Bubble. That’s about where funds stand today, says Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas. D.C. doesn’t boast the Hollywood moguls or hedge-fund managers that pay for contemporary-art projects in Los Angeles and New York. Still, the Hirshhorn’s inability to scare up eight figures for the Bubble is surprising.

One reason for the Bubble’s fundraising trouble may have been its rocky unveiling. The first mention, in the Times in December 2009, garnered a positive review for the project, but it happened before the Hirshhorn had much more than renderings to go on. The pace of the project, originally set for completion in fall 2012, was as optimistic as the original $5 million price tag. The Smithsonian didn’t even post a request for proposals for design-build services—that is, for the contractor that will actually build the thing—until February of last year. That’s a process that takes months.

Three resignations from the Hirshhorn’s board last fall didn’t help matters, thanks to a string of Washington Post articles that reasonably, but not conclusively, tied the departures to the Bubble. Board chairman J. Tomilson Hill has not stated publicly why he resigned in October. Beth Dozoretz wished Koshalek good luck with the Bubble in her resignation letter, Koshalek claims. Dozoretz and Barbara Levine, another trustee, both cited their involvement on other boards as a reason for leaving the Hirshhorn.

Now, Koshalek has a board whose new chair, Constance R. Caplan, is an avid supporter of the Bubble. From there, the director is hoping to restructure a board that has yet to match Bloomberg levels of support for the project. Ken Bentsen, Jr., a former Texas congressman and nephew of former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, now oversees a committee tasked with building out the board. Paul Schorr is leading a new committee responsible for raising money for the Inflatable.

But the Bubble is running out of time. In the next few months, it will come together, or it won’t. Koshalek has a self-imposed spring deadline for the fundraising effort: He passes on the Hirshhorn’s recommendation to the Smithsonian this summer, and it’s ultimately the Castle’s call.

What Koshalek still may have to do is articulate exactly what the Bubble is for.

Koshalek has built his career by transforming institutions through splashy architecture. Yet today, he says that museums have turned too much to entertainment to draw tender. The man who helped Gehry build Walt Disney Concert Hall says that spectacle has run amok.

He’s not wrong. Consider any number of high-profile projects over the last decade: Carsten Höller built a slide through several stories of the New Museum in New York. Tim Hawkinson built a block-sized inflatable organ for the Whitney. Michael Heizer dragged a 340-ton granite boulder to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In January, the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 satellite in Queens announced that the architecture firm CODA will design a “Party Wall” for its summer Young Architects Program.

Between its Aitken, Kruger, and Diller projects, the Hirshhorn may be trading in this type of museum stuntmanship. But by and large, it’s not a trend that afflicts Washington. In D.C., museumgoers have to worry about a different kind of dumbing down—for example, the government-subsidized babysitting that was the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2012 survey of video games. With rare exception, the troubling proliferation of artworks that take on the scale of museums happens in either New York and Los Angeles.

D.C. is different. Koshalek says that the Inflatable would serve another purpose, one to which Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” or “Party Wall” don’t even pay lip service: education. “You tell me one museum in the country that has an educational program that is what it should be to provide to the general public what artists do and what art means,” Koshalek says. His stance is essentially activist: Museums should do more to educate their audiences on what role art can play in American life.

There are at least two points in favor of Koshalek’s view of the Inflatable. First, Koshalek is reading chapter and verse from the new dispensation of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has always focused on education, but only recently has it branded itself with teaching in mind. In a meeting of the Board of Regents in January of 2011, consultant Mary Ellen Muckerman gave a presentation on how to rebrand the nation’s cultural treasury. Muckerman noted that although 90 percent of Americans recognize the Smithsonian as a name brand, recognition among American youth falls to 70 percent. And the figure is smaller still among minorities, especially young minorities: Just 50 percent of young Hispanics have a good idea of what the Smithsonian is. Among other recommendations, Muckerman suggested the Smithsonian up its “geek chic” quotient—its appeal to millenials—through outreach and educational programming. By June 2011, the Smithsonian had adopted “Seriously Amazing” as the tagline it hopes will come to replace the unofficial “Nation’s Attic” as its public motto.

The Inflatable fits the “Seriously Amazing” slogan, which is overadverbed and a tad too prêt-à-Tumblr. But there’s a second argument in favor of Koshalek’s broad but fuzzy focus on education to be found in the numbers. Following a January meeting of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, Clough said that in 2012 the instution raised $223 million for programming. Koshalek has to convince donors that the Inflatable is in line with whatever’s bringing in so much money to the institution elsewhere. If he fails to inflate the Bubble, it will certainly seem like a repudiation of his strategy of big architectural statements and big platforms for ideas.

For his part, Clough says that the Smithsonian could get more involved in the fundraising effort if the Hirshhorn asks for assistance. “We could come in and say what we’d like,” he says. “We’ll give them some help if necessary.” Clough says that the Hirshhorn’s board is in a “sober phase” and that, no matter what happens with the Inflatable, the Smithsonian remains impressed with Koshalek. “I think that [Koshalek] has lifted the Hirshhorn’s game very significantly,” Clough says. “If you have one idea that doesn’t work out, that’s OK.”

The Inflatable competes with a disappointing strain of art-world innovation. The pressure to program artworks at a 1:1 scale with art museums is untenable and trades serious research for short-term spectacle. The New Museum doesn’t have any of the obligations to the public that the Hirshhorn does, and in that sense, the focus on spectacular architecture is a shame.

But if the Inflatable ultimately does serve a sophisticated educational purpose in line with the Smithsonian’s democratic ethos, than its existence truly would be seriously amazing. Too often in museums, education is a euphemism for programming for kids. Across the Smithsonian, there is a code for how an exhibition will play in terms of accessibility: Can the family of four from Idaho handle this?

Koshalek isn’t looking down at his audience but rather looking across at Washington, thinking in terms of how the city’s cultural infrastructure can be funneled into the Hirshhorn. Diller thinks of the Bubble as a way to take the energy of a march on the Mall and channel it into the Hirshhorn’s central pavilion. Given how they’ve articulated these aims—and the fact that some events could be closed to the public—it may make sense to be skeptical. But at $11.5 million, even at $15 million—a paltry sum when it comes to shaking up a skyline—the Bubble isn’t a bad bet.

Compare the Inflatable to another large cultural project: the recently announced $100 million expansion by Steven Holl Architects to the John F. Kennedy Center, which will connect the imperious performing arts center to the Potomac River waterfront. That’s a fraction of the $650 million expansion that the Kennedy Center sought in 2003, which would have decked over the highways that segregate the Kennedy Center from the rest of Washington. Asking the federal government for almost half a billion is what dreaming big looks like. Fifteen million looks like asking for a favor by comparison.

The Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott describes Holl’s addition as “surgical” and “pragmatic.” Those are terms that encapsulate the design era that we’re living in, one that is poorly reflected by the architectural hodgepodge of the National Mall. Of any firm working today, Diller Scofidio + Renfro represents the ideology of adaptive reuse and recombining the concerns of urbanism, landscape architecture, and design into a single practice. With the High Line, the firm turned a public eyesore into a place where New Yorkers go to propose to one another. For D.C. residents, it is easy to imagine the Bubble being as much a marker of the arrival of spring as the cherry blossoms blooming.

Still, the Bubble has garnered jeers from critics such as ARTINFO’s Tyler Green and the Post’s former critic, Blake Gopnik, who have raised legitimate questions about whether the Bubble belongs at the Hirshhorn. I, too, have wondered whether the people who hired Koshalek knew he planned to introduce the Hirshhorn to the District’s lecture-and-blazer circuit. By its programming alone, the Bubble sounds like a project that could happen at the National Archives or the Cato Institute.

But Washingtonians shouldn’t want the Bubble for its programming—after all, who knows what it would house 20 years from now? Plenty of locals will take advantage of the Bubble’s lecture offerings, but that shouldn’t matter. They shouldn’t trust that the Inflatable will be an extension of the Hirshhorn’s contemporary-art mission, either; it likely won’t be.

The best case for the Bubble is architectural: It is a playful, recessionary monument to making do. Cultural institutions changed for the better between the dot-com boom and the recession, or at least for the more dramatic; now, the architecture firms and projects that are of the recession feel steelier, but also more fun. That’s the High Line, and that’s also the Bubble—no matter what happens inside it.

And if it doesn’t happen on the National Mall, the Bubble, or something like it, is bound to pop up at another institution.

“I have gotten visits from 10 presidents of universities asking to be involved,” Koshalek says of the Bubble. “If it doesn’t happen at the Hirshhorn, at the Smithsonian, I guarantee you it’s going to happen somewhere else.”