PRINT October 2005


Herzog & de Meuron

FOR ALL THE ATTENTION being paid to the boom in museum construction and the intense competition among blockbuster exhibitions, the emergence of a new way of organizing the permanent collections at the heart of major institutions has received little press. While the Centre Pompidou, Paris, claims that their current “Big Bang” reinstallation of their collection is the first thematic grouping of its kind, encyclopedic museums around the world have recently been experimenting with innovative presentations of their vast holdings. In London, the Tate Modern’s attempt to use themes rather than chronology to organize its artworks is already seeing its first revision. Director Malcolm Rogers is preparing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for a Norman Foster–designed expansion that will reflect his reorganization and integration of the museum’s different departments in 1999. And the new de Young Museum, which opens this month in San Francisco, is a concrete attempt to implement one of the most radical strategies to have emerged in the field of late: the conflation of the encyclopedic museum as enduring treasure house with the instant visibility and nonhierarchical nature of our current visual culture.

The high priest of this approach is Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who in 2001 proposed one giant, multidirectional volume as a new home for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Conceived to offer audiences an open field in which to find their way, the single-story display space would have allowed the visitor to follow parallel paths through different cultures, but also to cut through these “canyons” to construct her own route through time and space. Koolhaas’s scheme was replaced with a more conservative addition to the existing LACMA by the ubiquitous Renzo Piano (who is currently at work on at least six major museum projects in the US alone), but he is now trying to piece together an even-more-ambitious collage of historical fragments at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. The collections will be spread throughout both the original Winter Palace and the War Ministry across the square in a display that will leave much of the original buildings as unrestored as possible. The viewer will thus be suspended between historic and contemporary time, not just because of the organization of the collections but also because of the insertion of new technologies into a rambling, eighteenth-century bureaucratic labyrinth.

The $168 million de Young Museum, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, is the first major museum in which an approximation of such an antihierarchical approach will be on view. The building itself, moreover, adds to the ongoing debate about whether an iconic form or a neutral container is the best way to show art—by doing both. It stands out as a monumental presence, but one that has been abstracted to such a degree that it can also be seen as a simple warehouse. It pulls this trick off by pulling apart and then reassembling the bits and pieces that make up the traditional art museum rather than opting for a wholesale reinvention of the type.

The de Young is actually the larger component of an encyclopedic institution collectively known as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The other part is the Legion of Honor, a classical building extensively renovated between 1994 and 1997. Prior to that facility’s reopening, Harry S. Parker III, who directs the whole system, decided to place European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts together with the museum’s extensive graphic-arts collection in the appropriately academic setting of the Legion. The remainder of the collection, basically everything non-European, wound up in the de Young.

After it became clear that the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 had so seriously damaged the de Young’s 1919 home that repair was not possible, the museum decided to rebuild. That left the Fine Arts Museums with a tabula rasa on which they could construct a new venue for non-European art. The site was Golden Gate Park, a man-made urban oasis on what had once been barren sand dunes. Before closing the doors of the old building for good in 2000, the museum hired the architecture firm led by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (then relatively unknown in the US) in 1999 on the strength of their work on small galleries such as the Sammlung Goetz in Munich, and the Dominus Winery in Napa Valley, California.

From the outset, Herzog & de Meuron envisioned the de Young as concept driven and collage-like in its character, a collection of spaces for art rather than a rigid institutional framework. As Herzog puts it: “I never found the way traditional museums of this sort present work to be very interesting because in effect they tell you what to think. What they consider the most important pieces are hung in a line and individually highlighted. It is more like a jewelry store than a museum. We thought it would be better to look at the whole historical collection through the eyes of contemporary art, in which you mix things up and try to get to the essential concepts of what art is.”

Their original scheme, inspired by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, consisted of a series of pavilions. Taking advantage of the area’s generally mild climate, the viewer would move freely from one gallery to another via the natural setting. The idea proved impractical (the weather is not as good as the city’s press would have it), expensive, and perhaps too radical for the institution. Herzog & de Meuron’s second scheme was an antimonumental object riven by canyons that would let the park penetrate right to the museum’s core. The final building, a modified version of this second plan, is slightly smaller and the rifts slightly less extreme. The shape of the building itself is an abstraction of the massive temple of art in the mode of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Art Institute of Chicago. The architects have relinquished all of the traditional decorative articulation that might let one understand its scale and iconography, replacing columns, grids, and statues with a copper skin covered with a raised dot pattern that is based on an abstraction of the effect of light filtering through the canopy of trees in the park. As the copper ages (it is already doing so), the building will partially blend into its sylvan surroundings.

Missing are the base, the pediment (or the cupola), as well as the side wings that might anchor the building. The monumental front one would expect in such a temple of art has become a massive overhang on the building’s west side, which shelters the museum café. Meanwhile, one-third of the de Young’s bulk is hidden underground, where visitors can enter from the parking garage directly into the 12,000-square-foot space designated for rotating exhibitions. The efficient presentation of traveling and temporary shows is thus not acknowledged—as is usually the case—on the exterior as a constituent part of the new museum. Conveniently, this strategy also reduces the almost 300,000-square-foot footprint of the de Young from its previous incarnation by thirty-seven percent, allowing the architects to tell opponents of construction in Golden Gate Park that they had actually lessened the institution’s impact on its natural surroundings.

In a nod to the classical forecourt that graced the entrance to the original Spanish Colonial building, the architects stretched the façade over a more modern version of that space that lets one see the angular, elongated geometries immediately upon entering the building’s precinct. Here it becomes clear that the museum’s dominant form is that of the stretched and bowed rhomboid, leaving one with a sense of slippery and deformed mass instead of a clear frame. When one then enters the building, the sense of disassociation continues: The grand stair one might again expect at this point (as one finds at the Met or the Art Institute) is missing, having been moved to an interior courtyard to the left. There, one looks out at a forest of eucalyptus planted by landscape architect Walter Hood in one of the fingers penetrating into the museum’s center.

The actual gallery sequence continues the theme of deformation and dislocation. The de Young’s collection of modern art (still rather weak, especially compared to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s much-expanded and strengthened holdings) occupies massive and plain galleries snaking around the southern and western sides of the building, their high ceilings rising up past some of the galleries on the floor above. This floor, or piano nobile, has no beginning, end, or even clear sequence. The de Young’s stellar American painting collection is at the center of these classically proportioned and beautifully skylit galleries. Extending outward from this nucleus are small spaces for photography and decorative arts, and two long, arched, parallel spaces housing, respectively, African art and the museum’s new collection of art from Papua New Guinea (the result of a major gift in 2005). These latter spaces are wood cocoons that seem to be carved out of the trees of Golden Gate Park, making one feel as if one is wandering through a primeval forest inhabited by totems from faraway cultures.

The allusions, in other words, are clear: classical galleries for academically formed art, abstract boxes for modern work, and something more organic for non-Western art. What is missing are hints that might make such framing devices definite and restrictive, as well as a path that claims to lead towards enlightenment by starting in the deepest forests and winding up, say, with the pellucid landscape grids of Richard Diebenkorn. Instead one can find one’s own way through these fragments and suggestions of context, discovering unexpected junctures of the monumental and the mundane. It’s all there, but it’s all mixed up.

The final displacement is that of the symbol for the art museum itself. The original de Young had a small and much-loved bell tower beyond its entrance court. We now expect important cultural institutions to twist and turn their way out of their context to advertise themselves as major attractions. Herzog & de Meuron gave the de Young a tower, and it is suitably iconic. The architects take the sloping rhomboid that lies at the museum’s formal core and twist it all the way around into a 144-foot-high tower covered in copper mesh that rises above the low-slung building. Though Herzog & de Meuron claim that the tower is a way of reconciling the museum’s orientation to that of the San Francisco city grid surrounding the park, in reality the result is a completely sculptural object continuing the trend started by Frank Gehry of conflating art and the buildings that house it. This iconic form is a detached symbol, without any pretense of being a container for art. Instead, it is home to the de Young’s extensive educational facilities. That the tower now represents a place for the direct engagement of the institution’s diverse audience with its art objects, rather than announcing a sacred precinct for the contemplation of isolated artifacts, demonstrates that the encyclopedia has become a Cyclops.

The new de Young may not have the visionary sweep that some architects have drawn up in their schemes for the totalizing art museum, nor is it the kind of expressive monument that serves to anchor art in a media-saturated culture. Instead, it is a modest attempt to recast the encyclopedic art museum as something more open to interpretation while providing just enough elements to let us still recognize that it is an art museum. “We wanted to make a building that would work in the San Francisco fog,” says Herzog. If one imagines that fog extends to the world of art in general, he and his associates have succeeded at their task of transforming the art museum into something recognizable, yet evanescent and slightly mysterious.

Aaron Betsky is the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.