Beyond Buildings


SFMOMA Does the Right Thing

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The San Francisco Museum of Art has compiled a good list of architects to design its addition. This should not be much news. It actually should not be news at all, as the short-list for the 235,000-square-foot addition is supposed to be secret (did somebody leak it for strategic reasons?). But there you have it, and we should not be surprised. After all, you would expect the second-oldest, second-largest modern art venue in the country to have good modern architecture. But this is San Francisco, which I have always maintained is the ugliest city in the United States in relation to its human-made forms, though recent buildings have been pretty good (think, for instance, of the new Federal Building by Morphosis, or the de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron).

I hate to say this, but this also is SFMOMA, where I had six happy years as a curator, but which tends to be rather conservative in its choices: witness the sculpture garden just added to the parking garage owned by the museum behind its iconic, grandly symmetrical Mario Botta structure. Finally, the main reason for building the new structure is to house the collection Don Fisher left to the museum. Fisher in the end was very generous with his collection, but he also was a man with little to no interest in good architecture. Somehow director Neal Benezra and the SFMOMA board, advised by architectural instigator David Meckel, picked a list for the addition that includes David Adjaye, Peter Zumthor, Enrique Norten, Rem Koolhaas, Snøhetta, Steven Holl, and Diller, Scofidio + Refro. OK, Renzo Piano is there, too, but he has to be on every list in the same manner I.M. Pei or Edward Larrabee Barnes used to have to be.

So what’s wrong with the list? The always-predictable Christopher Hawthorne, writing for the Los Angeles Times, finds the list predictable. True, but at least these are all serious architects who have shown themselves capable of designing good art museums. I would have added some of my own favorites (Kazuyo Sejima? UNStudio?), and I wonder about the absence of some other “predictable” names (David Chipperfield? Tod Williams and Billie Tsien? Toyo Ito?), but the strangest aspect of the leaked list is the lack of local talent. In particular, where is Stanley Saitowitz, whose Tampa Museum just opened? Perhaps he suffers from the fact that familiarity too often breeds contempt: I once had to contend with an SFMOMA trustee who swore that she would never choose him for any commission because she had torn her stocking on a stair in a loft Saitowitz had designed. And what about Jim Jennings, or Kuth/Ranieri Architects, who I think should have won the sculpture garden commission?

Perhaps a local name will be added to the possibilities, as Meckel claims the list is only very provisional. Perhaps some of the more daring choices will disappear off the list altogether in the process. But if SFMOMA sticks more or less to what it has, it almost can’t go wrong—unless the chosen architect messes up. Mario Botta did some of his best work for the institution, and SFMOMA’s enlightened leadership, director, and staff make the conditions for the appearance of a good building as good as they could be. I will keep shaking my souvenir SFMOMA building snow dome for good luck.


Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:16 AM Wednesday, July 28, 2010

    The SFMOMA claims "We are a nonprofit organization of 353 individuals dedicated to the idea that art and museums can transform lives. By embracing the challenge of the new and unexpected, we hope to encourage fresh ways of seeing, thinking, and engaging with the world." Why is it then that when SFMOMA along with other U.S. art museums lately have formed a building committee, chosen from a very short list of "name" architects and then picked the most buzz worthy and expensive architectural firms ? With so much architectural talent and excellence going begging in the United States,and in particular California and given the unemployment rate among U.S. architects hovering at between 10% to 40% in the U.S. (depending on the city) why is it necessary to hire a firm from Norway? Isn't hiring an architect when they have several museum commissions a bit late in the game and at the top of the market? If every city has their Adjaye/Zumthor/Koolhaas/Snøhetta/Holl/DillerScofidioRefro/Piano building won’t it be difficult for these to claim uniqueness from any other institution? A cultural consumer is already hard pressed to differentiate one museum from another given how many are done by a mere handful of well know architects. From a marketing standpoint this is unsustainable. From an architectural standpoint it is a tragedy. This building project, if it proceeds as planned, will stand as a monument to the current media obsessed age which is ignoring a generation of new, qualified, diverse, and excellent, U.S. architects. Lost is support and nurture of an organic and vital architectural scene in the long term in the attempt to generate buzz in the short term. One looks to the boards of any city's art institutions to be the patrons of all the creative arts each time they have the opportunity. It is dismaying that the boards of art institutions in U.S. cities do not support their own architects and include them in the creation of cultural buildings.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:17 PM Monday, April 19, 2010

    YES - yes... good choices have been made, lets hope that a great project results

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.