Snøhetta's design will at last give San Francisco the museum it deserves

San Francisco is better known for its attachment to Beaux Arts and bay windows than for its architectural adventurousness. This can be great, as in the case of the beautifully-restored Beaux Arts City Hall, or dismal, as exemplified by the proliferation of stucco pseudo-Victorians that litter the city. The city’s liberal tendencies were rarely expressed in its design preferences, as was well-illustrated by the rather risk-free selection of Swiss architect Mario Botta to design its Museum of Modern Art in the 1990s.

The Jewish Contemporary Museum by Daniel Libeskind

Botta beat out more radical competitors with his straightforward design, one that fit right in with the architectural climate of San Francisco at the time. In the years since Botta’s building—which has always reminded me more of a bank than a cultural institution—San Francisco has taken a few walks on the architectural wild side. It got a sculptural, copper-clad museum by Herzog + deMeuron (despite the design process being held up for ages by one guy who thought it looked like a gas station). Daniel Libeskind cut into an old PG&E substation to create the dynamic Jewish Contemporary Museum (above). Bold architecture combined with aggressive sustainable criteria characterize both Thom Mayne’s dramatic Federal Building and the wildly popular California Academy of Sciences Building by Renzo Piano. And tucked between Victorians throughout city are increasing numbers of modern residential facades.

SFMOMA sculpture garden by Jensen Architects. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

In 2009, Botta's design got a nice jolt with the addition of a rooftop sculpture garden (and a Blue Bottle Coffee) designed by SF locals, Jensen Architects. It’s one the better parts of the museum—the very antithesis of Botta’s cold and corporate lobby. But now things are going to get even better on Third Street.

Design of the new SFMOMA. Image courtesy Snøhetta.

On Wednesday, the museum unveiled new renderings for its planned expansion by Snøhetta. They’re gorgeous and I have to be honest and say I’m pleased at how they already succeed in grabbing the attention from that cylindrical turret (Botta’s signature move.) In fact, with the expansion they’ll also be getting rid of the current lobby and three-story granite staircase as well—welcome changes all. Though SFMOMA told visitors a decade ago that "a stroll up or down the grand staircase should not be missed, for this is the most dramatic route through the building,” I’ve always found that entry foyer to be more of an obstacle to the art than a grand introduction.

SFMOMA Expansion View from Yerba Buena Gardens and View from Howard Street. Images courtesy Snøhetta.

Snøhetta’s plan (which the neighboring W Hotel isn’t thrilled with) is to make the museum a more integral part of the urban experience by making it accessible from all sides. The design will bring a new expansiveness to the museum, allowing it to exhibit its recently acquired Fisher Collection along with art that’s been in storage for years (but let's hope there are some new acquisitions coming to go along with all this new space). In fact, the new space will include 130,000 square feet of gallery space—more than New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 40,000 of that would be accessible without the purchase of a ticket. Richard Serra's Sequence (2006) will be visible from the outside on the Howard Street side even when the museum is closed.

This is a welcome addition to an already bustling urban condition and will give San Francisco a museum of the caliber it has long deserved. "We are not interested in creating sculptural monuments. We are interested in creating social monuments," said Snøhetta's Craig Dykers. "We were intrigued by the idea that this wasn't an expansion, but a connection to those who live nearby."

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