San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtPosted by Anthony Nelson in , on May 27, 2016
When it was founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) occupied one, then two floors of the War Memorial Veterans Building in the Hayes Valley neighborhood before moving into its purpose-built, Mario Botta–designed home in nearby SoMa in 1995. That building was almost immediately maligned for looking dated in its Postmodern imagery and for not functioning well in terms of circulation. This month, the museum unveils its newly expanded facility, designed by Snøhetta. With the $305 million addition, which increases gallery space to 170,000 square feet, SFMOMA now has more exhibition space, if only temporarily, than the still-inflating MoMA in New York. That astronomical growth in just over 20 years may be the result of dramatic changes in the city itself— its population and economy boosted by the tech industry—but it also speaks to a spirit of innovation, both curatorial and architectural, in the institution.
On the outside, the New York– and Oslo-based Snøhetta has found more success than most in adding to an iconic, or idiosyncratic, building. Rather than adjoining a quiet box, as minimalist David Chipperfield did at Cass Gilbert’s classical St. Louis Art Museum, Snøhetta designed an addition that asserts itself as a work of architecture in its own right, while showing the appropriate amount of deference to Botta’s aggressive pile. It does so by turning its back on Botta.
The most dramatic facade of Snøhetta’s building—a bowed wall composed of over 700 unique sculptural panels of glass-fiber reinforced polymer—faces in the opposite direction from Botta’s terraced red brick frontage along the open area of Yerba Buena Gardens. In fact, views of Snøhetta’s 10-story undulating screen, inspired by the rippling water of San Francisco Bay and the Art Deco ornament of the PacBell tower behind it, are partially obstructed by lower buildings. It only comes into full view when approached from the narrow Natoma Street. The effect evokes similar experiences walking around San Francisco, as fanciful facades or public art— Union Square’s Dewey Monument, for instance—appear, almost as surprises, where the city’s many alleyways come to an end.
At the heart of the new expansion is a groundbreaking partnership with the family of Doris and Donald Fisher, who together founded the Gap in San Francisco in 1969. After they lost their battle to build a museum designed by Richard Gluckman at the Presidio, they entered into an agreement with SFMOMA that gives the museum access to more than 1,100 works in their collection for 100 years. Dedicated galleries in the new building are currently showcasing 260 of these paintings and sculptures.
For those exhibition spaces, Snøhetta took as a starting point the existing ceiling heights and maple floors of Botta’s galleries to create a seamless internal transition from old to new. Air handling is also seamless, with displacement grilles discreetly located above gallery walls rather than on floors. Ambient lighting, acoustic treatments, and electrical and plumbing hardware are hidden within ceilings, which are coved on lower levels.
Offices occupy the upper portion of the building. “In terms of museum design, the highest, most distant area from the entrance is not prime real estate—you have to get people there,” explains Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers. “Placing the staff on the top floors was a win-win for everybody. They need views and daylight; the art does not.”
In fact, there are few precedents for such a tall urban museum. (The addition reaches 200 feet. By comparison, SANAA’s New Museum in New York is about 175 feet.) Snøhetta has designed a series of exquisite, elongated stairwells with views above and across and out to the city along the bowed facade, to move visitors naturally through the building. Curiously though, the firm’s biggest intervention in the original museum was to remove Botta’s monumental staircase from beneath his iconic oculus—in order, it seems, to allow more daylight in from that strange circular skylight and open up the atrium space. In other areas, however, Snøhetta enhanced Botta’s design—for instance, uncovering select gallery windows to allow 360-degree views of the city as you make your way through both buildings.
The expansion dramatically increases amenities, including free public-access areas, rooms for education, and performance and event venues. Restaurant space increased more than threefold, while only a few hundred square feet were added to the museum store—a clear indication of where revenue comes from, or is expected to, these days, as more and more museums become entertainment centers in addition to places for viewing art. In Situ, the museum’s ground-floor restaurant set to open in June, will feature a rotating menu curated by three-Michelin-star chef Corey Lee, with contributions from over 80 other world-renowned cooks.
The greatest achievement of the project is the way it is rooted within place, with its grand white facade of silicate crystals from Monterey Bay embedded in its panels’ surfaces catching the city’s dramatically changing light. It is one more voice in the cacophony of singular buildings, its own predecessor not the least of these. But orienting the addition toward the alley means that the more visible face, and new entrance, along busy Howard Street, suffers for its positioning— its wall is rather bland, as if it were the plain side of a slice of frosted cake, with the many layers, or floors in this case, clearly delineated. The other odd thing about directing the “frosted” side away from the main street is that it runs the risk of one day being almost completely obscured. In this rapidly developing neighborhood— prominent modern art dealers Larry Gagosian and John Berggruen are opening galleries across the street, and the huge Trans Bay Center, now under construction, is visible from the museum’s upper floors—the three- and four-story buildings directly adjacent to SFMOMA are likely to be turned into towers by developers.
Turning inward allows Snøhetta’s building to be distinct from Botta’s, but, in a sense, just as eccentric. By taking as many cues as it does from the city, and its neighbors, Snøhetta’s addition is pure San Francisco, quirks and all.