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COMMENTARY : Putting Up a Grand Facade : San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art is opening a $9.25-million expansion and renovation that adds style and function. But the most telling message may lie behind that pretty new front.

March 10, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

SAN DIEGO — If they build it, will you come? That is the unnerving question that looms large today, as the Museum of Contemporary Art here opens a $9.25-million renovation and expansion of its small seaside building in La Jolla, which has been closed for construction since 1994.

Ten years ago, the museum hired the celebrated Philadelphia architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates to create a much-needed overhaul. That a full decade has passed between Venturi's hiring and today's public debut--considerably scaled back from the original expansion plan and delayed several years--suggests both the herculean difficulty of getting the project completed and the high stakes now riding on its success.

In fact, a visit to the new edifice shows that the museum has taken a huge gamble. It has ended up with the only exemplary architecture built in downtown La Jolla since the great Irving Gill erected the landmark Scripps House 80 years ago. Art, however, has been relegated to the margins--which makes all the blood, sweat, tears and money required of the project seem fantastically misdirected.

Not one square foot of new gallery space dedicated solely to art has been added to the small museum, despite the multimillion-dollar expansion cost. City planners and other officials opposed Venturi's original master plan because it meant building four new exhibition galleries in an undeveloped garden at the rear of the museum site, overlooking the ocean. The museum responded with the stunning decision to proceed with a partial renovation instead. The galleries were sacrificed.

Now, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have given San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art a kind of magnificent false front. From Prospect Street, their functionally skillful facade is imposing, playful and inviting. Inside, next to nothing has been done for public interaction with art.

The museum, founded in 1941 as the La Jolla Art Center, was originally the house of newspaper heiress and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. And what a house it was.

Architect Irving Gill (1870-1936) had come to Southern California in 1893 after training with the brilliant founder of the Chicago School of architecture, Henry Louis Sullivan. For Scripps he designed a house astonishingly modern for its day. On a bluff overlooking the Pacific and with spectacular views of the dramatic curve northward along the region's beautiful coastline, he transformed the simple, formal clarity of Mission-style architecture into a modern idiom.

From Sullivan, Gill had learned to conceive of a building as a formal unity--a premise that would be fundamental to modern buildings for decades to come. The Scripps House was a rectangular, two-story box pierced by unadorned windows with simple fenestration. At the front door, a Mediterranean porch punctured by graceful arches was flanked by vine-covered walkways--or pergolas--whose columns were in a plain Doric style. Old photographs show a stunning home of crystalline coherence overlooking the placid sea.

The Scripps House was built in 1916. It functioned as part of an ensemble of Gill-designed buildings, which still stand today. Directly across the street is his great Woman's Club (1912-14), closest to the residence in design quality; to the south are the Recreation Center (1914-16) and the Bishop's School (1910).

According to the museum, a 1957 poll in the magazine Architectural Record ranked the Scripps House as the ninth-most-important building designed in the United States in the previous 100 years. But architectural stature didn't prevent its ruination in coming decades.

Additions, renovations and "modernizations" by the 1960s conspired to nearly obliterate Gill's building. Gone were the porch and pergolas. In their place a spindly covered walk in a banal International Style visually linked the house to a handsome auditorium built next door. Adaptation of the museum's interior to display art meant covering windows and reconfiguring rooms, while an awkward expansion to the south further altered Gill's design. In essence the Scripps House was gone.

Now, it's back. Or more specifically, a remarkable image of it has returned.

High on Venturi's list of priorities was acknowledgment of Gill's masterpiece. He and Scott Brown began by restoring the facade's original features, unsealing windows and rebuilding the porch and pergolas. Wisely, they didn't stop there. Gill's architectural vocabulary also provided a critical context for their expansion.

Venturi has designed other museums, including the excitingly eccentric Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery and the less successful Seattle Art Museum. He understands that an art museum functions as a public symbol. Its public character differs from the private, domestic nature of a house.

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