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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

In adding a new 1,450-square-foot cafe and an enlarged 1,600-square-foot bookstore to the San Diego museum, and in relocating its auditorium box office, the architects chose to put them out front, right on Prospect Street, flanking and slightly in front of the Scripps House. The addition's design seems to have been cued by the arched windows and gridded fenestration on the Woman's Club across the street, enlarged to a more civic scale. For the first time, the museum boasts a formally unified facade, which gracefully curves along a principal public promenade.

Venturi has also employed a familiar language of commercial design: Blunt neon wall and window signs identify the cafe, bookstore and box office. A curved wall that steps back near the box office wittily nods to Venturi's own London design for the Sainsbury, as does a cascading grand staircase in the rear garden.

Perhaps the cleverest transformation of Gill's private design vocabulary into Venturi's civic one is the addition of a second covered walkway. Meant to signal the main entrance, Venturi's pergola replicates Gill's sleek Doric columns and wooden lattice--except Venturi's are huge. The slender proportions of the originals on the Scripps House have been aggrandized in the new ones by a fat, oversize, almost cartoonish scale. These big Doric columns at the entrance slyly recall the 19th century classical origins of American art museums.

The Pop quality of Venturi's "Toon Town pergola" also emphasizes the setback of the original house from the new facade. A visually permeable membrane is created. The design feels layered all across the facade--a visually rich metaphor for the 80-year history of the building site with its multiple architectural layers.

Inside the museum, everything changes. The new entrance lobby comes as a startling surprise after the wry yet dignified serenity of the exterior. Architecturally exciting, it also poses certain difficulties.

The lobby is big--4,500 square feet. A gray-and-white terrazzo floor is patterned in a torrent of giant Dalmatian spots, whose flow playfully leads you into the space. Overhead, the room explodes into a tall lantern; this skylight is carved out in the shape of an asymmetrical, seven-pointed star, which fills the room with natural light.

An organizational key to the building's master plan, the lobby provides access to every area--bookstore, auditorium, galleries, below-ground education center, exit--which radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. The points of the lantern's star work as subliminal pointers, gently directing the flow of traffic in the expansive space. It's a clever solution to a daunting design problem.

Yet it creates problems too. The lobby is also meant to accommodate some art, but it's inhospitable to that purpose. Painted baffles in the lantern are edged in white neon, while a forest of 14 supporting columns breaks up the room. Most sculpture would be gobbled up here, and only very particular works of art can survive on surrounding walls.

However, the lobby does seem like a great space for a party. As with the grand entrance hall of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, social gatherings were clearly a priority in its design. The big difference between San Francisco and San Diego, though, is that up north they also built an art museum out back, with exceptionally handsome gallery spaces for the display of art. Down south they didn't.

No space solely for art was added in the expansion of the museum, whose few existing galleries are small and cramped. Lock, stock and barrel, the entire La Jolla building is just over 57,000 square feet. Only 10,500 of them are dedicated to galleries. Even if you count the lobby, that's a pretty bad ratio.

As evidenced by its inaugural installation of about 70 works from the permanent collection, the museum has some extraordinary objects among the 3,000 in its collection. In addition to the best Ellsworth Kelly painting west of Manhattan and a fine group of Pop and Minimalist art, it boasts a strong core of California painting and sculpture, including important recent acquisitions of work by Joe Goode, Kim MacConnel and Alexis Smith.

It's true that the museum has a satellite space in downtown San Diego, with about 6,000 square feet of galleries. Still, La Jolla is the main event. It's next to impossible to imagine substantive, simultaneous presentations of both the permanent collection and temporary shows being mounted there.

Public amenities for eating, shopping, partying and ticket buying aren't all that's gone into the expansion. Proper storage vaults, art-handling areas, a research library, offices and meeting rooms may not sound glamorous, and most are never seen by the public. But they are essential to a serious institution, and the museum happily now has them in a way it never did before.

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