VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Retail By Design | The Brand Experience

Towards a New Modern: The Strategy Behind Snøhetta’s SFMOMA

 

 

 

The soon to open San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is riding high on accolades not seen since the much ballyhooed Mario Botta building transformed the city skyline back in 1995.

 

But it’s important to remember one’s roots and that for decades, SFMOMA lived in the shadow of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

 

Back in 1935 when the museum was established, San Francisco’s upstart museum didn’t see a need to distinguish itself from one on the east coast, especially since that one had only emerged on the scene six years earlier.

 

More than eighty years later, what started as a privately funded civic institution housed in an unused space of the War Memorial Veteran’s Building, is now one of the most important modern art institutions in the country.

 

I remember when SFMOMA was the ingénue of the modern art world — and that was part of its charm.

 

4. The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens; photo Jon McNeal, © Snøhetta
A view of Mario Botta’s 1995 SFMOMA building from Yerba Buena Gardens. Behind it Snøhetta’s new addition.

A luncheon with John Diebenkorn (he spoke lovingly of the light of San Francisco), or meeting Jeff Koons (riding high on Michael and Bubbles). I loved an unusual exhibition of Jackson Pollack’s “psychoanalytic work” — esoteric but fascinating nonetheless.

 

I realize now that these exhibitions defined the museum’s unique personality and distinctly renegade approach to collecting art. The soul of the museum was its quirkiness.


{ A great modern art museum must not only be aesthetically seductive, it must be functionally relevant to its ultimate purpose: to showcase great art. }


When the museum moved t into its new Botta-designed building — a rather “serious” museum in the fashionable, post-modern style — it seemed SFMOMA had finally “arrived.”

Suddenly the city could boldly boast of it’s own MOMA. Ours — not New York’s. But still people were confused. Is this New York’s West Coast satellite?

 

More importantly, in a relatively short time the new building began to lack the space and flexibility to give the museum the broader stage it needed to showcase its now massive collection.

 

So in 2009 when Doris and Donald Fisher officially donated their world-famous collection (a mere 13,000 pieces), it was quid pro quo that SFMOMA needed to transform itself into something fitting of such a formidable donation.

 

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At top, the Snøhetta team experiments with mass and form. At center, thoughts and ideas begin to percolate through countless working sessions. Below, the museum takes shape.

But how to adapt Botta’s building and add a massive new wing. More importantly, how would the expansion impact the visitor experience? What are the “roots” of this institution and how should it present its own singular identity?

 

The winning design firm, Snøhetta, had their work cut out for them.

 

“The building should open to visitors from all walks of life,“ recalls partner in charge, Craig Dykers, of the initial assessment of the project’s goals.

 

“It should be inviting to those who may be introduced to modern art as well as those who are more focused art enthusiasts. The building should be familiar in some ways while very challenging in others. It should invigorate and feel authentic and intimate. Its galleries should allow the art to feel natural in the room.”

 

7. Helen and Charles Schwab Hall featuring Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing 895 Loopy Doopy (white and blue) (1999) at SFMOMA; photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

 

6. Alexander Calder’s Untitled (1963) on view in the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium at the new SFMOMA; photo © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA

 

8. Alexander Calder Motion Lab The Fisher Collection exhibition at SFMOMA; photo © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA

Three of the seven open spaces at the new Museum. The architects sought to underscore the intersection of city and space, art and discovery.

A great modern art museum must not only be aesthetically seductive, it must be functionally relevant to its ultimate purpose: to showcase great art.

Creating this kind of new public “face” for such an important institution is challenging. The San Francisco skyline is already clogged with buildings. To essentially “add on” to an existing landmark takes a bit of arrogance and cunning. No doubt this weighed on the Snøhetta team.


{ Like a journey through the city, the museum’s passages lead us through distinct exhibition paths but also allow us to discover. }


Every architect hopes – even if secretly – that the building they design will become “iconic.” Consider the Guggenheim Bilbao, which practically overnight became a world-famous icon and turned a sleepy Basque industrial town into a household name.

 

While this wasn’t Snøhetta’s goal, the hope is that they could do what Botta arguably hadn’t done with his building. Indeed, Botta created a new icon for the city’s skyline, but it didn’t necessarily propel SFMOMA’s reputation to the heights it had hoped. Snøhetta worked from the inside out, making art the heart of how they solved a problem.

25. SFMOMA façade of Snøhetta expansion; photo Jon McNeal, © Snøhetta

 

24. SFMOMA façade of Snøhetta expansion; photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

“By creating the undulating, white exterior we created a situation where, as the sun moves through the day so does the play of sunlight on the surface.”

“Most museums do not have very much glass and have few windows, since natural light can harm delicate works of art,” says Dykers. “By creating the undulating, white exterior we created a situation where, as the sun moves through the day so does the play of sunlight on the surface. At night the ripples capture the ambient light of surrounding buildings, or from the night sky.”

 

It’s only natural that such a building would become the target of critics. The London Guardian uncharitably called it “a giant meringue with a hint of IKEA” while the San Francisco Chronicle tried to be generous and called it “no masterpiece but it has real joys.”

 

Architects are used to critics — it comes with the job.


{ Where before, museums were static and didactic, new museum design emphasizes art as a personal experience that doesn’t always need to be prescribed. }


Nevertheless, I would argue that Snøhetta has in fact delivered a building that, while not a groundbreaking architectural icon, it offers a far more compelling art experience than Botta’s brick bunker, which was stunning from the outside but remote and lonely on the inside.

 

“The new multiple entries, glass facades, and exterior stair and terrace are an invitation to visit the museum,” says Elaine Molinar, Snøhetta’s managing director.

 

2. Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016; photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

 

1. The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens; photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Above, Snøhetta’s building, which also sought to bring new dimension to the existing museum building by adding entrances and exhibition space on the two streets which border the block. 

Snøhetta came up with the idea of two entrances, with one on Howard Street bookending the existing entrance on Third Street. Each entrance showcases a collection of works that are free to the public, a kind of tasting menu that invites them to go further on to the main galleries.

 

“The design of the galleries was very deliberate in terms of bringing the art into focus,” says project architect Jon McNeal.

 

“We worked very hard to eliminate as many details and equipment as possible from the floors, walls, and ceilings. Ceilings in the core galleries are designed with a cove to provide ambient light with a hidden light source which greatly reduces the number of exposed spotlights.”

 

Molinar explains that rather than disguise the connection between the “new” and “old” buildings, Snøhetta sought to make the transition distinct and to some extent, obvious. A window is built into the expansion joint that links the two structures together.

 

23. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace featuring Alexander Calder’s sculpture Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), formerly Man (1967); photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

The museum features 24,000 square feet of outdoor space, such as this outdoor gallery featuring Alexander Calder’s Maquette Pour Trois Disques.

Snøhetta sought to deliver a distinct visitor experience that mirrors the city with its hills, bay views, and promontories. Like a journey through the city, the museum’s passages lead one through distinct exhibition paths but also allow us to find inspiration on our own.

 

Where before, museums were static and didactic, new museum design emphasizes art as a personal experience that doesn’t always need to be prescribed.

 

“The expansion offers the visitor a gradual experience of ascending and descending through all the galleries: a change in direction, unique views of the city, a chance to pause and reflect, and to step outside. There’s a sense that you are on an adventure.”

 

Several weeks before the museum opened, the museum hung its new visual identity which baffled some who were stunned that the Botta-inspired logo featuring stout and solid, post-modern sans-serif typography had been forsaken for something altogether different.

 

We wanted the identity to reflect our mindset—one that is open, surprising, and welcoming,” explains Jen Sonderby, SFMOMA’s design director. “For this reason the new identity is designed to move, literally opening up just as our building now does to the city, and welcoming visitors to a wide variety of experiences.”

sfmoma_logo

At left, the 1994 SFMOMA brand identity. Beside it, the new one. “We wanted the identity to reflect our mindset—one that is open, surprising, and welcoming,” says SFMOMA design director Jen Sonderby.

The letters are at once, floating and moving — Sonderby uses “kinetic” — simultaneously expressing the movement and the change of San Francisco, and the climate and environment that is very much its signature.

 

“One of our formal goals was to have all three letter groups equally weighted so that the ‘SF’ was essential to the ‘MO’ and the ‘MA,’ and which will also help dispel the myth that we are the San Francisco branch of MoMA NY.”

 

As we know, content is king, and here is where the museum must beat its own path towards a new identity. With a two-year calendar full of prestigious exhibitions, this will be the museum’s chance to dispel that myth and command its own identity.

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