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Full metal jacket: the de Young Museum may appear tough and impenetrable, but in reality exploring its interiors is a delight; just like a wall in the park.

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise; a very big surprise, but a welcome one at that. For the people of San Francisco the anticipation is over, and for Museum curators, the Board of Trustees, and the designers involved, the gala opening of the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park this month concludes years of hard work. After the devastating effects of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, plans were made to rebuild the Museum's damaged buildings. Following two failed attempts to secure funding through a city bond, when it was hoped that public money would help preserve its valuable art collection, the decision was taken to raise funds privately, increasing the target from $35 to $135 million; an apparently unattainable target that was subsequently surpassed with an astonishing $180 million being raised by over 7000 donors. With this determined demonstration, the ambition to design an architectural masterpiece not only gave the Museum the opportunity to rebuild its galleries, but also to reinvent itself; challenging how art is displayed through a serious of unique interiors, and confronting the pre-existing formality of the Beaux Arts garden site.

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The architect of London's Tate Modern and the recently completed Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Herzog & de Meuron was chosen from a long list of well-known contenders. Meier and Botta were both ruled out and, presumably with subsequent regret, Gehry, Holl and Piano all declined the Museum's invitation. From a shortlist of eight, the final three emerged with Tadao Ando from Japan, and regional local Antoine Predock alongside eventual winners, H & dM from Basel. There were many reasons for their success, but one in particular was that they were the only architects to talk extensively about the nature of the collection, setting out their commitment to avoid Disneyfying the art work, striving instead to establish a higher order of expression; an order that they defined as Heterotopical.

The de Young collection is vast and varied, ie, heterotopical, with work that dates back to the dawn of human history. Established in 1895 as the Memorial Museum, it originally housed an eclectic collection of exotic oddities in commemoration of the California Midwinter International Exposition that took place the previous year. It has remained in this location ever since, undergoing a number of redesigns on its way to becoming the principal museum in the Western United States (focusing on the art of the Americas, Oceania and Africa). As well as the collection itself therefore, the site--buildings and landscape--has had a significant influence on H & dM's response; a site that has been transformed from a desolate expanse of sand dunes to a much cherished, highly contrived, naturally manmade urban oasis.

Through early explorations, H & dM initially tested ideas based on a series of individual pavilions, each housing a different collection and expressing the diverse range of the cultures represented. This was soon rejected, in favour of a strategy that did precisely the opposite; one that created a single unified container--a string of pavilions, each retaining their own landscaped borders, compressed into a single three-bay mould. When read as a series of parallel bands, buckled to allow the park's landscape to fill the spaces in between, this interpretation describes an assemblage of conjoined linear spaces. As a conceptual counterpoint, however, this building can also be read as an eroded solid, which is an equally pertinent interpretation, particularly when considering its construction above a single base-isolation raft foundation.

The building is not structurally fractured, despite its deeply incised footprint and roof plan ridges that trace a series of notional fault lines. Instead, this beautifully clad, subtly distorted copper monolith is a very simple, rigid, orthogonal steel box, with no real claim to structural innovation. And this is no criticism; if anything it is an observation that underlines how the pursuit of sophistication and the particular in architecture is more often than not most effectively realised by employing the most basic, logical, dare I say banal means. Once again, as at Laban, Schaulager (AR August 2004) and the Barcelona Forum (AR September 2004), to name just three previous buildings, H & dM demonstrate their ingenious and masterful ability to create highly sophisticated and intricate spatial sequences within remarkably straightforward unremarkable structures. It is highly unlikely, for example, that many visitors would be immediately aware of its rectangular plan or be able to perceive the regular grid hidden within walls and display cases, and stepping in on occasion as diagonals dictate. The building is simply too vast to take in in a single glance, and through expert nip and tuck, the subtle inflection along its roofline, the graceful twist of its tower, the inviting inset entrance courtyard, and the gently nodding cantilevered brow, this steel box is made unique. The building succeeds in becoming an objectified compelling piece in its own right--a work laden with sculptural intention producing another distinctive H & dM silhouette, while remaining efficient, functional and adaptable; the ultimate, for want of a simpler word--Gesamtkunstwerk.

The copper skin is perhaps the most immediate characteristic that may surprise unprepared visitors. Gone are the stuccoed Classical and mock Egyptian facades that addressed the formal gardens. In their place is a super-graphic projection that superimposes dappled foliage onto a material that over time will take on its own naturally dappled patina. Prevailing winds are anticipated to accelerate the effects of oxidisation along the more exposed angular leading edges, so the skin will literally change with the wind. Light too will play its part bringing out subtle semi-tones, as will the famous Bay Area mist which will soften hard edges as it passes through the tower's countless perforations.

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The building has three entrances, one on each of its three parkside facades, which all work against the formality that dominated the previously axially planned site. Internally and externally (working with landscape architect Walter Hood), H & dM set up a series of convergent cross axes that create unorthodox spatial relationships. Externally, this is manifest in routes that subvert the convention of frontal planning, denying ceremonial approaches and traditional iconic symmetry, instead leading visitors almost accidentally to one of three points of entry. Internally, geometries set up highly charged relationships between apparently unrelated parts of the collection.

Wherever you enter the building, either at ground level or by car through the basement which leads to the paired stair that flanks the glazed landscaped court, all visitors are collected within a vast foyer-shop-cafe sequence that is freely accessible to all. Controlled access then leads to the galleries that extend across the upper level, and to the education tower that is structurally and spatially isolated from the low-lying ground-scraper. Avoiding the temptation to reserve the best view for the museum director, the top of the tower includes an observation room set aside for visitors in a space that turns to address the city's rigid orthogonal grid. This building is without question an art rambler's dreamland, designed for roaming and for being casually led. By offering apparently incidental glimpses, visitors are drawn through galleries of contrasting ambience and content, in a series of spaces that break down conventional hierarchies and give equal representation to both classical spaces, those with fixed walls and overhead lighting, and those with freer open arrangements with windows, free-standing cabinets and display cases. Throughout this non-hierarchical landscape, however, the plan is moderated by a number of key topographical fix points including the grand stair (beautifully sculpted to include an under-stair bench), the entry court--featuring Fault Line by Andy Goldsworthy--and most potently the two hairpin intersection points between galleries where acute geometries are resolved. While the designers have not settled on a single name for these devices, occilating between the term contact and switch, the electronic analogy suitably encapsulates the highly charged spatial experience that this building provides.

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From the park, across the foyer, through the galleries and over Fern Court, the ascent to the tower is a fitting spatial climax, reminding keen art viewers and casual park walkers alike of their immediate and more distant physical and cultural context.

More information is provided in The de Young in the 21st Century--A Museum by Herzog & de Meuron by Diana Ketcham, published this month by Thames and Hudson.
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Article Details
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Author:Gregory, Rob
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Words:1432
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