New Town in Canadian Wilderness by Philip Johnson


hirshhorn perspective image

It is hard to build in Washington DC; there is a lot of history and a lot of approvals required. Surprisingly, it is easier to build there than it is the Canadian wilderness; that is what philanthropist Joseph Hirshhorn found out when he tried to build a new town "planned towards happy living" north of Lake Huron, with Philip Johnson as his architect. Blake Gopnik writes in the Washington Post:

Joe Hirshhorn, a child of the tenements, had made a decent fortune on Wall Street in the 1920s and had started using it to buy modern art. But the huge uranium strike he bankrolled in Canada in 1953 -- just in time for the nuclear arms race -- allowed him to think bigger, and to bring several of his interests together. As a mining magnate, he needed a place to house his workers. As an arts patron, he wanted somewhere to showcase his collection, which he now had the money to expand to museum size. And as a new-minted philanthropist, he wanted to help the world, in this case by giving those workers a model town with that art at its heart. That town was called Hirshhorn.
hirshorn film image

Click on image to see video in new window

It has been reconstructed at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington by Terence Gower in a n exhibition called Public Spirit: The Hirshhorn Project with renderings by Sticky Pictures, a Brooklyn based design and animation house; read an interview in Archinect here and click on the image above to watch a video.

It is all very dated and reminds me of my Kenner Girder and Panel building set, and the planning of a town that needs buses to get you from downtown to the apartments is of another planning era, but what would it have been like to have such a museum, such center of culture up there. Instead, according to Robert Fulford,

And what happened to Hirshhorn, Ont.? As soon as the newspaper stories broke, merchants from Blind River informed Hirshhorn that they considered the new town a threat to their local businesses. The Ontario government showed no enthusiasm. The early estimate of the investment necessary, US$35-million, was thought to be much too low. Hirshhorn lost his enthusiasm and let it die. But for a while the idea of an art centre with a population of Hirshhornians, deep in the woods of northern Ontario, was a bizarre but grand Utopian dream.

How little things have changed in 50 years.

More on the exhibition at the Hirshhorn:
More urban planning and eco-towns in TreeHugger:
Eco-Towns: Three Models of Green Urban Planning
Freiburg Has Solar Flair
Ecocities of Tomorrow: A Visit to Freiburg
How to Build a Green, Car-free Community: Vauban

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