My most significant experience at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was at four in the morning, some time in 1999. The closing of Bill Viola’s exhibit was celebrated with an all-night museum party – we arrived around 3am and experienced Viola’s surreal video works in a time and place that felt exactly right for his shadowy, echoing, haunting pieces.
SFMOMA’s first dedicated building – opened in 1995 and designed by Mario Botta – reflected this time and place. In the late 1990s, San Francisco was in an internet boom that brought boatloads of money to the city, but the city had an edginess that gave way to things like Burning Man – inclusive, revolutionary and celebratory. Parties were drug-fueled and improper. To me, the Botta building, crowded and compact, with a dark stone floor lobby and heavy brick walls, felt completely consistent with this wild little city.
Now, in 2016, San Francisco has once again gotten the museum it deserves. The extraordinary new SFMOMA, designed by Snøhetta and three years in the making, is a feat of creativity and design. The $305 million expansion adds 235,000 square feet to the museum as a whole, including 100,000 more square feet of gallery space to the existing 70,000. It is bright, clean and accessible. East facing windows reveal a terrace with the largest public living wall in the U.S., made of more than 19,000 plants, including 21 native California species. A new gallery featuring the work of Alexander Calder blurs the line between indoor and outdoor.
“Accessibility” was one of the primary stated goals of the expansion – the first- and second-floor exhibition spaces will be free and open to the public, and admission is free for all visitors 18 and under. The message of inclusion and accessibility was given ample lip service during the press preview, as (white, mostly male) speakers used buzz words like “diversity,” “transparency” and “authenticity.” Yet the museum has come under fire for the dearth of women and artists of color represented in the galleries. But again, this is San Francisco in 2016 – where gentrification has driven out communities of color to make way for shiny new condo construction, and the SFPD police chief, Greg Suhr, was recently fired amid revelations of the force’s rampant apparent racism and deaths of unarmed African-American and Latino residents.
It is within this charged political climate that Snøhetta has created something spectacular. The material innovation is a large part of what makes this building remarkable. Known internationally for projects like the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo and the National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York, Snøhetta was faced with a number of design challenges. The new building had to fit in a block-long, narrow site, and it had to integrate with the existing 1995 Botta building. To create the new façade, which was inspired by the fog and waters of the bay, they created 700 FRP (fiberglass-reinforced polymer) panels that attach to a curtain-wall system, and create a rippling effect in changing light. The new space has six outdoor terraces, further blurring the lines between indoor and out, and a staggering amount of natural light for a museum. With 46% decrease in energy use – partially due to their custom LED lighting system, being one of the first museums to use them exclusively – and a water recycling system that creates a 60% reduction in potable water use, it’s on track to receive LEED Gold certification.
With numerous areas open to the public free of charge – including Roman steps that overlook the Richard Serra’s massive and awe-inspiring Sequence (2006) – two cafes and a coffee shop and all those terraces, the new museum does feel like a refuge, a clean, bright, meditative place. It feels fancy and wealthy. After all, 60,000 square feet of gallery space houses the Fisher Collection, the result of what museum director Neal Benezra called an “innovative public/private partnership.” Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of The Gap, amassed a huge collection of modern art – and wanted place to display it for the public. It’s understandable why the museum and Snøhetta wanted to emphasize accessibility – the museum exists primarily thanks to one couple’s wealth and taste.
Though the museum design has come under criticism, I found it undeniably beautiful, peaceful and inviting. But being there came with some grief, a feeling that something beautiful has been lost, as San Francisco fights to retain its heart and soul. Gone are the days when a renowned museum would open its doors to welcome the children of the night – where a messy, creative, progressive and radically inclusive ethos prevailed in the city. Something different is happening now and we have the perfect bright, shiny museum to show for it.