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Architects Urge Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego to Reconsider Expansion

A $75 million expansion planned for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has drawn opposition from seventy-five members in the architecture industry who have signed a petition imploring the museum to reassess the project weeks before the groundbreaking.

At the heart of the controversy is the planned removal of elements from a 1996 expansion of its La Jolla campus at 700 Prospect Street. The addition is the only project by the postmodern architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown (VSB) in San Diego County. The petition, which was also sent as an open letter to MCASD director and CEO Kathryn Kanjo, has garnered signatures from architects, critics, and chief architecture curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the MAXXI Museum in Rome, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Signees also include Denise Scott Brown, coarchitect of the museum’s last expansion, which cost $9 million.

“We ask that [the museum] reconsider the value of its existing building and come up with a plan for expansion that is sensitive and respectful to the village of La Jolla,” reads the petition, which was authored by Harvard University graduate student Izzy Kornblatt, who has never visited the museum. The new expansion, which has already been approved by the City Planning Commission and designed by New York’s Selldorf Architects, would strip away much of VSB’s facade and colonnade. It would also create a glass lobby that the petition deems “formulaic.” The institution’s current entrance will be reutilized an educational space.

Denise Scott Brown is now retired and caring for husband, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Robert Venturi, who suffers from dementia. She only heard about the expansion when Kornblatt called her. “In designing our building, we carefully analyzed and reacted to a pattern of activities on Prospect Street,” she said in a statement. “But now the delicate connections that we created are to be severed, equally threatening the museum and the village. Why not go on from what we so lovingly provided?”

In a statement, the museum defended the proposal. “With the Venturi Scott Brown & Associates’ columned courtyard, guests were consistently unable to locate the entrance, gravitating either to the shuttered Gill doorway or to the southern auditorium entry,” it said, adding that “VSBA’s work is not being destroyed; yes, the columns and the pergola are being removed but the vast majority of their contribution will remain.” The museum has been closed since January 2017 in preparation for the project, which is scheduled to be finished in 2020.

Selldorf Architects has completed many renovations and expansions for cultural institutions, including Massachusetts’s Clark Art Institute, with Tadao Ando. More recently, the firm received the green light for its upgraded proposal for the Frick Collection in New York, a $160 million project that is also slated for 2020.