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San Francisco's MOMA Moment : Mario Botta designed an interior that is sublime. But what happened to the rest of the new museum?

January 15, 1995|Pilar Viladas | Pilar Viladas is a free - lance writer based in San Francisco and a contributing writer to Architectural Digest

SAN FRANCISCO — The art museum, says noted Swiss architect Mario Botta, has replaced the cathedral as the embodiment of communal and spiritual values--or, in our secular age, as civic monument.

Indeed, if the museum building boom of the last decade or so is any indication, no self-respecting American city is complete these days without a new one. And now, with the opening of the new home that Botta designed for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the City by the Bay has joined the club.

The $60-million, 225,000-square-foot structure, Botta's first U.S. building and his first major museum, was built in association with architects Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. SFMOMA touts itself as the largest new American art museum of the decade and, with its 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, the second-largest single structure in the United States devoted to modern art.

(New York's Museum of Modern Art, with 100,000 square feet of gallery space, is the largest single structure, while the nearly 80,000 combined square feet of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and its Temporary Contemporary put it in second place).

Certainly this new home is a welcome change for the San Francisco museum--which spent nearly six decades housed in cramped quarters in the Beaux Arts-style War Memorial Veterans Building in the city's Civic Center--and for museum-goers as well. Finally, SFMOMA has a big, bold building of its own, on 3rd Street between Mission and Howard streets, overlooking the Moscone Center and the acclaimed Center for the Arts complex at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Right now in San Francisco, locations don't come any more high profile than this one. And the 51-year-old Botta--who is known for his rigorously geometric, muscular designs for houses in the Ticino region of Switzerland, as well as for commercial and civic buildings in Europe and Japan--has gone the site one better.

"We told Mario we wanted a building with some significant exterior character," recalls museum Director John R. Lane.

No problem there. On the outside, the museum's massive--and we do mean massive-- brick facade, stepped back to give each floor the necessary roof area for skylights, is accented by horizontal stripes of black and white granite. They frame its entrance portal and wrap the cylindrical tower, with its angled skylight top, that crowns the building. Inside, under the skylight tower, a soaring atrium and dramatic staircase rise from the spacious lobby through four floors of galleries.

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This is architecture with a capital A. But is it a wonderful place in which to see art? And, given its very urban setting, does it make a significant contribution to the city?

First, the good news: SFMOMA is a more-than-wonderful place in which to see art. The museum's galleries are elegantly proportioned, beautifully lighted and logically arranged. The architecture plays a key role in maintaining this sense of orientation yet never competes with the art on display.

To appreciate fully Botta's orchestration of space, visitors should take the stairs, if possible, to ascend through the atrium. Each of the four exhibition floors has a different character, determined by the kind of art it displays and underscored by the proportions, lighting and layout of its galleries.

The second floor has an elegant sweep of skylighted 16-foot-high galleries, traditionally arranged on an axis, and houses the museum's permanent collection of 20th-Century painting and sculpture. Also on this floor are the architecture and design galleries, where the exhibition "Mario Botta: The SFMOMA Project" offers a detailed look at the architect's designs for the building. Since the third floor will display mainly photography and works on paper, it has lower ceilings, and it is the only floor that is entirely artificially lighted.

From the fourth floor, a flexible space devoted to temporary exhibitions, a double stair inserted between the inner and outer walls of the skylight tower leads to the fifth floor. There, visitors must cross a steel bowstring-truss bridge, under the skylight, to get to the gallery, a single, expansive 23-foot-high space that can accommodate large-scale works.

The bridge is a dramatic--even melodramatic--gesture, but the sensation of hovering in the cool white interior of the tower offers the museum-goer a meditative moment of visual respite. (Alas, my only visits to the museum have been on gray winter days. On a sunny summer day, the tower under that enormous skylight may be anything but cool.)

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