Snow in July
As announced last Thursday, Snøhetta has won the commission for the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This is the most significant commission in the cultural arena after the crash of 2008, and promises to provide a major addition to this country's stock of cultural monuments. The selection also marks the coming of age of a new generation of architects specializing in this field, replacing the list headlined by the likes of Piano, Gehry, Koolhaas, and Herzog & de Meuron that has dominated competitions and selection processes for the last decade.
ICA Boston Fifth Floor Gallery
Truth be told, I would have preferred the commission to go to Diller, Scofidio, & Refro, the New York-based firm that I believe combines critical analysis, a firm grasp of both technology and programming, and the ability to create beautiful spaces and forms, better than any other practice of that generation. Having said that, Snøhetta is not at all bad. Their Oslo Opera House is a delight, at least from the front. It's a civic iceberg rising out of the city’s fjord, providing public spaces sloping up its mass, and opening up into a glorious wood cocoon where the concerts take place. Here and elsewhere, this multi-national collective has proven its ability to create wonderful public and exhibition spaces, and its work is as varied as it is accomplished.
I also would not have minded the commission going to David Adjaye, whose designs are more minimalist in their appearance than that of either of Diller, Scofidio, & Renfro or Snøhetta, but who is as conceptually sharp as either one of them—something he proved in the Denver Contemporary Art Center Building, finished two years ago. The only one of SFMOMA's final four that I did not think worthy was Norman Foster, the Lord of High Tech whose office has grown into such a monster that it only occasionally extrudes out something other than rote curtain wall.
It would have been nice if talented local designers such as Stanley Saitowitz or Kuth/Ranieri had been in the mix, but San Francisco, like most non-core cities, has little respect for its own talent. What is most important to me is that the choice represents a focus on architects who have both conceptual and formal chops: They know what they want to do, and they know how to do it beautifully. Critics often deride the focus on theory that they see as having hijacked both the field and the major architecture schools in the last few decades, but I would argue that the refusal to accept programs, sites, and standard building practices as given, and the questioning of them through form, has given architects a better understanding of why they should make buildings—and most importantly, has provided them with tools for assembling such structures that go beyond the traditional components, which all too often result in closed and empty boxes.
Snøhetta will need all its skills on this site. The project is both an addition to a building designed by Mario Botta in 1992, which is symmetrical and complete onto itself, and a structure that must address a street around the corner. It must logically elaborate the existing spaces, respect the context, and create a new environment for the Fisher Collection, the large assembly of post-war art SFMOMA inherited last year. The museum did not ask the finalists for designs, choosing them instead on the basis of past work and their attitude. Of course, as they say in financial documents, previous performance is not an indicator of future returns. But, just as we hope that the ability to create wealth out of thin air in the past will continue in the future, so I hope that Snohetta will again be able to wrest great space out of a site that is difficult, conceptually as well as physically.
I also hope that other institutions will look at SFMOMA’s list and realize that the likes of Diller, Scofidio, & Renfro, David Adjaye, and the younger firms that are lining up behind them are not only capable of creating great buildings, but will help us to redefine the role of architecture as a necessary part of the opening and improving of our urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes.