View from Yerba Buena Gardens. Image courtesy Snøhetta.



Compared to the existing San Francisco Museum of Modern Art building, the new addition designed by Craig Dykers of Snøhetta looks, well, very new. This is not stating the obvious; it seems as if the museum itself is about to change into something completely different.


When it opened in 1995, the museum was one of the few new buildings in an urban area in a state of insistent transformation. Then, it stood alone. Now, it’s surrounded by newer, larger buildings and urban activities that were unimaginable a couple of decades ago. The building, designed by Mario Botta, is the epitome of certitude—indifferent to the surrounding city, symmetrical in its geometry, homogeneous in its appearance, and self-contained—a fortress frozen in space-time, sealed against change. After all these years, it still projects the disconcerting blandness of a scale model that has been suddenly inflated into a full-size building.


The contrast with the new building couldn’t be more dramatic. There is neither symmetry, nor the typical hierarchy of base, middle, and top. In fact, there are few vertical walls, and the building exhibits the provisional look of a work in progress. It has a raw energy, nuanced and truculent at the same time. The building exterior seems to bulge and stretch, as if it were covered with a tight jersey, where the sleeves are not quite where they should be. Perhaps this impression originates from the current renderings, which represent the building still in its schematic design stage. More likely, it is intentional and manifests the building’s effort to adapt to the program, its functions, culture, and surroundings.


The Snøhetta addition surges as a backdrop to the Botta building. It highlights the existing building but also declares its independence from it. Unlike the Botta building, it promises to open up to the surrounding area, engaging the city and its public with several entrances and dynamic approaches from all sides. It sets up a new alley connecting Harrison to Minna streets. After all, San Francisco is a city of alleys intersecting thoroughfares, although many of them have been wiped out by traffic, expediency, and years of absent-minded planning. But this is going to be more than a simple alley: it activates one of the museum’s access points, the one closest to the new lobby. It is a new urban space, a part of the city that otherwise would not exist, with public art, light, shade, greenery, things to see and places of rest.


View of back alley from Howard Street. Image courtesy Snøhetta.


One of the reasons why the Snøhetta exterior appears so malleable is because it assists these new spaces, condensing or expanding them, and it modulates daylight and views to establish a correlation between the exterior and interior. Visitors don’t have to enter the museum to see what’s happening inside; they can just walk around it and look at the art through the windows.


Another reason is that the exterior membrane wraps around the museum’s galleries. When discussing the architecture of museums, we often pay little attention to their art collections, as if museums alone, among all building types, were disconnected from the functions guiding their forms. Indeed, it is the art collections that inform the size, proportions, and shape of these galleries. We can pick any of the great institutions in this country—the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, to name just a few—to see how frequently they’ve expanded during their history as a result of changes in their collections. These changes were triggered as much by their increasing size as they were by the recurrently adjusting curatorial views of those collections. The SFMOMA is no exception.


Until a couple of decades ago, the museum’s collection, although interesting, was also small and inconsistent, strong in some areas but spotty in others. New York seemed to be at the center of the art world, and San Francisco felt relegated to the provinces. SFMOMA itself was apprehensive about comparisons with better known institutions. How was the museum to organize what it had to make the best of it? Chronologically? Too many gaps. By artistic movement, influence, or schools? Too limited. Focused on modern art? Too much competition with other museums and private collections. Opting for contemporary art? Too expensive, since the 1980s.


What to do, what kinds of spaces should be conceived for the then-new building? How to reconcile its public appearance and its own institutional diffidence? At that time, SFMOMA decided to do nothing—nothing original, that is, and nothing that was tailored specifically to the collection they had. The galleries Mario Botta designed are those typical of neoclassical museums, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Laid out longitudinally, en enfilade, windowless, illuminated only from the ceiling, generic containers of art, they are recyclable spaces for any kind of art, at any time. As a result, the building exterior is unblemished, virtually without openings. The only crack on its surface is a low entrance that discourages any light-hearted approach and gives admission only to acolytes.


It took more than twenty years to acquire a first-rate collection—years of frenetic accumulation, all hard earned with the help and gifts from many collectors and museum supporters. Now, the collection is not only broad, it is deep, and in some areas and with some artists (more on this in the future) it may be among the deepest in modern art museums. It will not follow the obvious tactic of corralling large gifts by a single donor into the same gallery adorned by the expected plaque. Instead it will lay out the collection as it makes the most curatorial sense. The permanent collection, having more than doubled its holdings, is now ready to bolster the new identity of the SFMOMA as one of the major museums of modern art. It needs not only more space but a greater diversity of spaces that are more specific to the art they contain.


With only part of the schematic design unveiled last month, illustrating mostly the exterior, it’s hard to predict what kinds of galleries these will be. Still, it’s possible to see from the renderings that the height of each floor, and consequently the size of each gallery, is different. We also see that, rather than having a seemingly endless sequence of skylights, the light comes into the building from its sides—from windows, not holes on the roof. This means that visitors may still be immersed in the world of art but feel less confined by the abstract space of the gallery. They may even venture outside onto one of the many exterior decks to take a break from the art and look at the city.


Aerial view of the expansion from Howard Street. Image courtesy Snøhetta.


We can almost touch the tension between the existing and the new behind the walls, although we cannot see what happens in the interior, yet. How will the transition between the two buildings take place? Will visitors realize that they are walking from one to the other? Wouldn’t it be simpler to demolish the Botta building altogether and start from scratch, as some have suggested? Perhaps. But the museum prefers to protect not only a physical continuity with the past but also the layers of memory accumulated therein during the last two decades. After all, we’ve seen many unforgettable shows in those galleries, and it is this history that helps curators to chart a course for the new addition.


Judging from some of the reactions to the Snøhetta design, some people love it and some belittle it. Some would like the Botta building to remain untouched. There are already people opposing the planned demolition of the grand staircase looming over the current lobby. Yet, the stair gets in the way of the only soaring space in the entire building. Standing directly under the oculus, we could look at the color of the sky and have a direct measure of the scale of the interior; we could experience a Roman-Pantheon moment, if it weren’t for the stair. This prominent element turned out to be “something awful,” as the late architect Joe Esherick, who was involved in advising the architectural selection committee in the early 1990s, put in his oral history.


Sometimes architectural critics forget that a building is not an object but the result of a long process, one in which many people participate—assistants, clients, engineers, builders, city officials, adjacent property owners, and the many experts who contribute the myriad bits and pieces that make up a building and that have a cumulative effect comparable to that of the architect’s design. Botta proposed a building that made sense of the instructions that were handed to him at the time. But his initial proposal was amended to reduce cost, accommodate changing agendas, and respond to public criticism. The stair from the lobby remained, never mind that the lobby ended up a quarter of the size intended in the original design.


Dykers, of course, has addressed these conflicts and come up with a resolution. Differences notwithstanding, there is a dialogue going on between the old and the new. The existing entrance from Third Street will make use of the lobby to direct the flow of visitors to the new lobby.


View of the new lobby. Image courtesy Snøhetta.


The stair will be gone, and the oculus will flood the space with light. There will be steps leading visitors up to the new lobby on the third level, including Roman steps for seating. All of this space, including galleries dedicated to special installations, will be open to the public before they arrive at the ticket counter. In time, visitors will love the new lobby, galleries, art collection, the alley in the back, the new urban canvas around the SFMOMA. They’ll forget about the stair.


When construction begins in 2013, the museum building will close down for a couple of years, but the institution will remain open, a “museum without doors,” as museum director Neal Benezra describes it. There are no definite plans, yet; it will cooperate with other institutions, organize shows in impromptu spaces, and engage the city not only on an urban plane but also on a cultural one. It is set to break new ground, metaphorically speaking: rather than opening a temporary or semi-permanent branch, as other major museums have done in their respective cities, it will plunge into the energy, culture, traffic, crowds, and dirt of San Francisco. It is through this immersion in “the fantastic reality of life,” as Charles Baudelaire described it, that we register the modern condition of art. Thus, the addition to the museum represents both a return to the roots of an institution dedicated to modern art and a promising new start.


Aerial view of the new expansion from Minna Street. Image courtesy Snøhetta.




  1. This is a great review, not least because Polledri was present at the creation of the Botta building. In the reference to the new alley, it connects to Howard Street, not Harrison. It’s good move to give that block more porosity.

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  2. Thanks, John. I’m always glad when somebody reads what I’ve written. Sorry about the error–yep, it’s Howard Street.

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  3. It is interesting thinking of the more free-form, cubist addition as the return to modern roots, and the classical form of the Botta as the departure.

    As you might expect, Botta’s influence (conscious or not, I don’t know) goes back a ways — here are some parallels between Botta’s SFMOMA and the mausoleum of Emperor Augustus:

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