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A gift, wrapped

San Francisco opens the copper-clad De Young Museum.

October 12, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — ONE of the reasons this city has been inhospitable to ambitious architecture in the decades since World War II -- and it has been unusually so -- is its inclusive-to-a-fault civic process, which often appears to value pique more highly than any other emotion. A single aggrieved neighbor, bicyclist or all-purpose naysayer is sometimes all that's required to bring a large-scale project to a halt.

And when the neighbor, bicyclist and naysayer find themselves unified against a proposed building -- as was the case with the new De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, designed by the perennially inventive Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron -- its chances of getting off the ground are usually close to nonexistent.

So there is much evident relief among De Young officials and fans of contemporary architecture this week as the $202-million, 293,000-square-foot museum readies for its opening Saturday. The building project has its roots in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which revealed severe structural problems in the old De Young, a collection of red-tile-roofed buildings. It has survived two failed bond measures, two lawsuits by a citizens group concerned about the new museum's effect on the park and more than a hundred contentious public meetings.

The building, in the end paid for almost entirely with private money, reflects the architects' ruthless curiosity about the role of architecture in defining contemporary cities and their taste for unorthodox cladding materials -- in this case, an exterior of copper panels that are dimpled in some spots and perforated, with circular holes, in others. The design, executed locally by the firm Fong & Chan, represents an architectural milestone for San Francisco. It ranks as the most important cultural building to open in the Bay Area since Kevin Roche's 1969 Oakland Museum of California.

At the same time, the design is never able to shake completely free of the political fights that have dogged it from the beginning, at least in the sense that its architecture is more calculated, constricted and protective than expressly creative. This is true both on the exterior, with its hard armor of copper, and in the courtyards and galleries, where the running theme is space that is narrowed to the point of claustrophobia, then generously widened, then cinched again. The 144-foot tower that rises from the back of the building -- the design's only vertical element and home to the museum's education department -- torques sharply as it moves higher, suggesting a body trying hard to wriggle away from something or someone.

A psychoanalyst, in other words, could have a field day with this design.

The building seems particularly severe given Herzog & De Meuron's turn, in recent and upcoming projects, toward a rich, playful Expressionism. In its extension to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which opened in April but was designed largely after the De Young, and in forthcoming buildings such as the Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Herzog & De Meuron has displayed a new interest in curvilinear forms and carefully controlled but highly effective blasts of decoration. The architects' Prada store in Tokyo, finished in 2003, is a gem-like marvel covered with diamond-shaped windows.

Together, those projects represent a new direction for Herzog & De Meuron, a move away from the rectangular boxes, draped in eye-catching skins, that made their reputation in the 1990s. They also suggest the growing influence of younger partners Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger.

The De Young lacks almost entirely that combination of playfulness and fluidity, which has added a welcome layer to the firm's already densely provocative work. Instead, it's a last, rather unforgiving vestige of the famous Herzog & De Meuron box.

The box in this case is low-slung and very wide, copper-colored now but soon to turn green as the panels oxidize. (That process, which will take about 15 years, will be accelerated by moisture from the fog that rolls in from the ocean and blankets the park most afternoons.) The architects initially wanted to use redwood for the facade, in a nod to the Bay Area architecture of Bernard Maybeck and others. That would have been a fascinating experiment, but it proved impractical.

The museum sits at a perfectly classical right angle to the nearby Golden Gate Park band shell -- indeed, throughout the design is contextual in posture if not in personality -- and directly across from the site of Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences, a building with a rolling, planted roof that will open in 2008. The architectural dialogue between Piano, now the most sought-after museum architect in the world, and Herzog & De Meuron, which had never designed a museum from the ground up before the De Young, should be fascinating.

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