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Pre-Columbian Collection Pavilion

Designed by Philip Johnson (1906–2005)

1960 - 1963
glass, marble, bronze, and teak

On view


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After donating Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940, the Blisses remained closely involved in the institution’s activities. In 1959, they embarked on two final architectural projects to house their collections and enhance their research institute. For one of these projects, they commissioned the New York City architect Philip Johnson to create a glass-walled, postmodern exhibition space for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, which had been exhibited at the National Gallery since 1947. The pavilion, completed in 1962 and opened in 1963, consists of eight round, glass-walled and interconnected exhibition rooms, each twenty-five feet in diameter, focused on an open central court with a water fountain and pool. The eight rooms are each domed and have flat bronze rings at their edges and a soffit ceiling to contain lighting and mechanical services. The curved glass walls are supported by cylindrical columns sheathed in Illinois Agatan marble. The floors are teak, laid from the center out in radii, and ended by wide rims of mottled green Vermont marble.

In a 1992 interview about this important commission, Johnson recalled the pavilion as one of his greatest triumphs: “It was a real collaboration and there was no budget, no money involved. It was just, ‘If we like that better, we’ll do it that way.’ So I had total freedom and it was a simple project to build a little museum, and the owner and I worked together and it was pure delight from beginning to end and it came out very well.” [“Interview Philip Johnson, Dean of Architects,” Academy of Achievement, Washington, D.C., 28 February 1992, autodoc/printmember/joh0int-1 (accessed April 6, 2009).] Johnson insisted that the design of the Pre-Columbian pavilion be “Bliss and Johnson, architects.” He claimed to have spent more time on the pavilion than he had spent on any comparable building since and credited its success to that fact. [Philip Johnson, “Foreword: The Pavilion in the Garden,” in Susan Tamulevich, Dumbarton Oaks, Garden into Art (New York, 2001), 18.]

Johnson’s postmodern building—with its eight domed circular galleries and unroofed central fountain area, all set within a perfect square—recalls Islamic architecture. Johnson later credited the design inspiration to his interest in the early sixteenth-century Turkish architect Mimar Sinan. [Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words (New York, 1994), 54.] He built the pavilion in the Copse, one of the designed landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks, and employed curved glass walls to blend it into the surrounding landscape. Johnson later stated that his idea was to fit a small pavilion into an existing treescape, and maintained that he wanted the garden to “march right up to the museum displays and become part of them,” with the plantings brushing the glass walls with the sound of splashing water audible in the central fountain. [Wolfj Von Eckardt, “Dumbarton Pavilion’s Scheme is Inside Out,” Washington Post, 8 December 1963.]

J. Carder

Carder, James N. "The Architectural History of Dumbarton Oaks and the Contribution of Armand Albert Rateau" in A Home of the Humanities, The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. James N. Carder, editor. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 109-110.

Acquisition History
Commissioned in 1958 by Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection from Philip Johnson, New York, NY. The construction was completed in 1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, DC