San Francisco’s MoMa underwent some changes
Behind its immaculate façade that seems to have been shaped by a breath of wind, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has completely reinvented itself. Now opened up to the city, its rebirth was overseen by Norwegian architects Snøhetta.
It’s the fruit of a long-term vision and political will to transform the SoMA neighbourhood – “South of Market,” a district of former industrial warehouses – into a new cultural centre. A fortress of bricks built by Swiss architect Mario Botta in 1995, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was isolated and disconnected from the city. Some even said it turned its back on the town, and passers-by walked alongside it without noticing the building or going in. Twenty years on, SFMOMA has cut loose and is now the biggest space dedicated to modern art in the entire United States. Founded in 1935, it contains exceptional holdings, including the Doris and Donald Fisher collection and the world’s most extensive collection of American photography, which now has its own space known as The Pritzker Center for Photography. The revamped building – the work of visionary Norwegian firm Snøhetta, who built the Oslo Opera House, the entrance pavilion to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, and who are currently working on the Le Monde building in Paris – is organized vertically, like a new figurehead for the city.
“We opened the museum onto the neighbourhood. We cut openings all over it to bring the public into the heart of the building. I like to say that in a certain way we ‘turned the zoo upside down’: by giving the building a transparent base, like a huge exhibition gallery in glass, there’ll always be something to see, an installation to discover, even for simple passers-by. The new SFMOMA has become an integral part of the urban fabric,” exclaims Kjetil Thorsen, one of Snøhetta’s founders.
When the firm won the international design competition in 2010, it was precisely because they’d come up with a concept that was open onto the city, generous, and accessible to everyone. To make this vision reality, SFMOMA had bought up a fire station and an office building just behind the old museum building, so that they owned a whole chunk of land, ramified around a network of little streets and alleys, where they could intensify their presence. The imposing vertical vessel that is the new SFMOMA adds almost 22,000 square metres of extra floor space divided up into internal galleries and outside spaces. “The bigger a museum is, the more it wearies and tires people,” explains Lara Kaufman, the project architect. “So we had to create diversity, invite nature into the heart of the structure, get the city to take part. To open up the old museum, first we brought in light. Then we brought the main visitor entrance closer and maximized the number of free galleries.” With Snøhetta, the word “gallery” takes on a new dimension in this building, where works offer themselves up directly to the city. An immense sculpture by Richard Serra is visible from the street, becoming a participant in the neighbourhood both day and night. Piled on top of each other vertically, the different exhibition spaces house distinct worlds, prolonged by terraces and sculpture gardens.
An immense white sail, the façade seems as though modelled by the sea winds. Mimicking the effects of fog and the changing light typical of San Francisco Bay, the immaculate elevation seems to be in perpetual movement, as though it were malleable. Creating links and encouraging communication between spaces were the leitmotifs of the project.
“To mark the junction between the Fishers’ collection of modern art and the space devoted to 20th-century photography on the third floor, we designed an external staircase, like a little pause before passing into a different world. Hugging the façade, it allows you to reconnect with the city and its panorama, becoming a space of its own. This staircase is in the image of San Francisco’s topography: it reveals different views with each step you climb !”, adds Kaufman. Almost like a rite of passage, it is where the visitor leaves the galleries to take the air, rediscover the city and escape for a brief moment before plunging back into all the richness of the collections.
By Clara Le Fort