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Museum lays tracks all across the city

January 20, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It's official: With a new building by Richard Gluckman opening this weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego now has an architectural pedigree even longer than its mouthful of a name.

The museum has been anchored for more than six decades in a converted 1916 residence, overlooking the ocean, by Irving Gill. It began leasing a small space in downtown San Diego in 1986, then seven years later opened a slightly larger downtown outpost -- designed by artists Robert Irwin and Richard Fleischner and architect David Raphael Singer -- inside Helmut Jahn's America Plaza.

That's only half the story. The museum next asked Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to renovate the La Jolla location, a project that was finished in 1996. It then turned its attention back downtown, acquiring about one-half of the Santa Fe train depot, a 1915 Mission-style building by the San Francisco firm Bakewell & Brown (which designed Pasadena City Hall) located up the street from the other downtown MCASD. It hired Gluckman and preservation architect Wayne Donaldson to renovate the depot, in a $25-million project that makes its debut Sunday.

The new facility, which adds a modest 10,675 square feet of gallery space, suggests that the museum is on track to become the art world equivalent of a tapas restaurant. Hugh Davies, who has been director since 1983, has assembled an impressive list of bite-sized venues by architects with wildly divergent styles. With a car (and a lot of energy), you could take in the whole architectural menu in a day: Start out with a taste of Gill and Venturi in La Jolla, then head downtown to sample the very different flavors of Irwin, Gluckman and Bakewell & Brown.

Davies would tell you that the museum's growth pattern over the years -- carving out a little bit of extra room here, a little bit there -- is the result of a complicated real-estate market, opposition from neighbors in La Jolla to an expansion there and a desire to serve different kinds of visitors and different kinds of art. Certainly the new galleries downtown will allow more commissions, large-scale pieces and site-specific work than the La Jolla building, which has a more residential, contemplative feel.

But maybe the director, who clearly relishes working with architects, is better described as a serial expansionist: a Thomas Krens who wants to dominate a single county instead of, you know, the planet. Interestingly enough, he may be ahead of the curve in that regard. Museums have been building local satellites for some time, of course: Frank Gehry's 1983 Geffen Contemporary for MOCA is the most successful Southern California example. But the trend has been accelerating lately, with mid-sized museums looking to create annexes in their home cities even as the Guggenheim and Louvre continue to plant their flags around the world.

This weekend the Seattle Art Museum will open a new sculpture garden straddling the freeway along the waterfront, just down the hill from its own Venturi building (which is now being extended by Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works Architecture). And the Whitney Museum made waves in New York last November by announcing it was abandoning a planned Renzo Piano addition to its Marcel Breuer building in favor of a satellite space downtown, at the entrance to the High Line, that was once slotted as a new outpost for the Dia Center. Along with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and a number of Manhattan galleries, Gluckman is perhaps best known for designing the 1987 Dia on West 22nd Street, which brings us full circle.

The San Diego commission, with its combination of preservation, renovation and ground-up construction, intrigued him from the start, he said. While the train depot's soaring main hall is still in use by commuters, the museum was able to acquire its old baggage-handling facility, which occupies the depot's northern half and sits under the same red-tile roof. Soon after, it added the adjacent property to the north.

Designed primarily for large-scale installation and new-media works, the galleries include one very large room -- the 4,600-square foot Farrell Gallery -- along with another big space for video, two smaller rooms and an artist-in-residence studio. They are airy and serene without seeming precious. Adding white walls and concrete floors while keeping intact the building's original arched and clerestory windows, they show off the Bakewell & Brown architecture to terrific effect. They make especially fine use of San Diego's seemingly limitless supply of sunlight.

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