I am trying to take advantage of my time in San Francisco to catch up on the benefits of the city I ignored for so long while working myself into burnout. The new de Young fine arts museum was recently completed, but I had ignored visiting the old de Young prior to its forced closing after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.
One might think that a new building by such esteemed contemporary architects would be the kind of tour de force represented by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain by by my favorite architect, Frank Gehry.
[Image by Mary Ann Sullivan's Digital Imaging Project of Bluffton University]
The new de Young Museum is essentially a two-story box with a too-short small tower, and the overall impact of the design is rather understated and certainly less flashy than contemporary museums like the Bilbao. Given the context of this building in the Golden Gate Park though, this design is very successful because it fits so well into the trees of the park.
The architectural impact of this design comes from the choice and use of a single material -- copper.
The entire building is sheathed in panels of copper that are each different in terms of texture or pattern. These patterns range from embossed circles to perforations. As the copper oxidizes over the years, the building will change over time and variations in each panel will continue to provide very rich contributions to the whole of the design.
The corner tower was a very controversial element of the design since neighbors felt that such high-rise structures are inappropriate in the park, but its color and texture helps it to fit in, and the compromised shortness of the tower missed an opportunity to provide a rare view out of the park.
As shown in this view from the observation deck of the tower, the Golden Gate Bridge is barely seen.
The view down from the observation deck makes the rooftop of the museum a fifth "side" of the building, and the architects have paid careful attention to the roof so that it is as tightly designed as the ground view.
Although the building is a box, it is cut through with courtyards that form the galleries and public spaces, as well as tying the building to the nature around it.
A cafe is located at the end of one of these courtyards
and features a structural tour de force in a canopy at the west end of the building.
But the most important contribution of the design of this building is to the art that it houses in the galleries. Since the building is a box rather than an architectural form in itself, the galleries could be configured and detailed to concentrate attention on the artwork rather than the form of the galleries.
I should be embarrassed to admit that I usually am not attracted to fine art museums other than those that feature modern art. The surprise to me in visiting this museum was that I enjoyed the diversity of the artwork so much and was reminded once again that the arts of the past directly inform the arts of today and our own humanity, as shown in this one example of earthenware from western Mexico from sometime between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D.
The purpose of museums is to give us perspective of the ability of human beings to express themselves and their times through the arts, and this particular museum does this so well.