SFMOMA Does the Right Thing
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.