Three new museum buildings and one high-profile museum addition have opened in California over the last 15 months: The Broad in Los Angeles and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, both by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R); the expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, by Snøhetta; and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis, by Solid Objectives–Idenburg Liu (SO–IL) with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ).
The Shrem Museum, which opened on Nov. 13, is by a significant margin the smallest (at 30,000 square feet) and the least expensive (at $30 million) of the four. It is also, as a work of architecture, the most thoughtful, the least predictable, and the most encouraging about the trajectory of American architecture. A single-story structure wrapped in pre-cast corrugated concrete and curving walls of glass that is topped (and from certain angles nearly concealed) by a sloping white canopy of triangular, perforated-aluminum beams, it is not a perfect building by any means, or even an especially consistent one. It is very much the product of an emerging firm, SO–IL, that is trying to find its voice and shrug off the influence of the Japanese office SANAA, where its two founders, the married architects Florian Idenburg, Intl. Assoc. AIA, and Jing Liu, were both employed when they met in 2001. (Idenburg is 41 and Liu 36, which makes them still very young by architectural standards.) The shadow of SANAA’s 2006 Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, a project both architects worked on, falls unmistakably on the Shrem.
What it has that those three other California museum projects do not is some authentic—which is to say some genuinely tentative and unfinished—feel for the future of museum design. It is a building that plants seeds as much as it reaps the benefits of an established point of view. Rather than rushing to win old arguments or finding ways to express in built form unrealized ideas from earlier projects (the latter of which has become an unfortunate DS+R trademark), SO–IL has suggested new avenues with the Shrem, especially in terms of something we might best identify as tone.
Unusual Freedom for a University Project
The museum occupies the southern edge of Vanderhoef Quad, just outside the campus proper and backing up against some train tracks and Interstate 80. (On the other side of the freeway lies an open, largely agricultural landscape.) Next door, on the western edge of the quad, is the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, a stocky, broad-shouldered 2002 building by Portland, Ore.-based Bora Architects.
UC Davis, which is located 15 miles from the state capitol building in Sacramento and about an hour’s drive from San Francisco or Berkeley, and which enrolls a total of 35,000 students, has never before had a purpose-built art museum, though the roster of artists who’ve either studied or taught there is impressive, including Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Bruce Nauman, Deborah Butterfield, and Manuel Neri.
After settling on the site on the edge of Vanderhoef Quad—about a 10-minute walk from the center of campus—the university launched an architecture competition for the museum, ultimately narrowing its list to WORKac, the Danish firm Henning Larsen, as well as SO–IL and BCJ. The competition was organized to produce a design/build team for the museum; SO–IL and BCJ joined with construction-management firm Whiting-Turner.
Though the location is not ideal in terms of its proximity to campus, the site and its relative lack of immediate architectural context did allow the finalists an unusual amount of freedom for a university project. The shortlist—varied but within a fairly narrow range—signaled that the university and its campus architect, Clayton Halliday, AIA, knew what they were doing. I visited UC Davis when models by the three teams were on display; unlike the way Eli Broad kept the design competition for his downtown Los Angeles museum entirely under wraps, this one was meant to be public at nearly every step.
SO–IL and BCJ won the competition in the spring of 2013 with a proposal for what Idenburg described at the time as “a patchwork of geometric forms that refers to the agricultural landscape and the vast horizon that you have here.” The goal was both to knit the design into its site—on a joint between campus and open farmland—and to suggest some new flexibility in museum architecture, what Idenburg called “a stage on which all these different things can happen.”
The final product is somewhat less graceful and light on its feet than the design that prevailed in the competition. For seismic reasons, the columns holding up the canopy are thicker than originally planned, with makes the entire courtyard somewhat more earthbound than I’d hoped. (This is an example less of dreaded value-engineering than plain old engineering-engineering, not to mention a reminder of what goes into the mastery of an office of perfectionists like SANAA.) Still, as a welcoming and public-minded gesture—the roofline reaches out toward the sidewalk, ringing the museum site and bringing visitors beneath its protective embrace—it has real power. The remarkable, shifting shadows cast by the beams above and the peaked opening at its center are also suggestive of a range of successful metaphors, endorsing the idea of a fluidity, permeability, and difference as opposed to the fixed canon of both architectural and art-historical ideas that once shaped most museums. This is an especially important set of ideas in California, and at a university associated with a group of artists whose work was eager to break from rigid East Coast and European formulas.
The plan of the museum resembles a four-leaf clover, with the courtyard beneath the canopy making up the first leaf. Inside, three modestly scaled wings splay out behind a small but not cramped entry hall, which is edged by curving floor-to-ceiling glass, the clearest echo of Toledo. A large multipurpose room is off to the left, museum offices and art studios in the middle, and roughly 10,000 square feet of gallery space to the right. A smaller interior courtyard fills the space between the office and gallery wings. In elevation these three interior wings read as separate boxes, of different heights, separated by circulation areas lined in glass and brought into some kind of alliance by the canopy.
The galleries themselves, with mechanical systems visible above a metal-mesh ceiling, are arranged in a tight loop, sending visitors away from the sunlit entry hall toward the rear of the building and then back again. (The galleries vary in height, with the tallest reaching 17 feet.) This path ends in a small but dramatic gallery looking out over the main entry plaza.
The intelligence of the completed museum lies in its sobriety and directness, and perhaps most of all in its interest in stripping away the layers of mannerism and self-promotion that have grown up around American architecture in recent years. It’s a building that is nimble enough to sidestep easy readings. (It is a resolutely horizontal composition, for example, whose spatial surprises nearly all come in how it’s organized vertically.) And it’s intricate enough, despite its small size, to reward multiple visits. This combination of steadfastness and a quiet (as opposed to neon-lit) dedication to complexity links it in certain terms to what I consider the most encouraging recent work by American architects, including projects by the LA firms Johnston Marklee and Michael Maltzan Architecture, New York City’s MOS Architects, and (when he is at his best) Brad Cloepfil, AIA, of Portland, Ore.–based Allied Works.
The Snøhetta Trap
We’ll see what happens when SO–IL starts landing bigger, more expensive, and more complicated commissions, of the type that make the most destructive sort of compromises more difficult to avoid. That is precisely the trap that Snøhetta fell into at SFMOMA, where it was asked to defer to an existing 1995 building by Mario Botta but ultimately found the need to disembowel the older building’s signature entry hall. For now, SO–IL has thrown down an interesting challenge to its peers and competitors. In the kind of project that can stifle an emerging firm’s sense of energy with layers of bureaucracy and cost-cutting, Idenburg and Liu have managed to deliver a museum building that more than anything carries the mark of conviction.
For all of the appeal of recent projects by offices of SO–IL’s generation and general outlook, this remains a transitional period in American architecture. The work of moving past the dominance of the celebrities, the bold-faced form-givers who have dominated museum architecture since Frank Gehry, FAIA’s Guggenheim in Bilbao opened two decades ago, is very much ongoing. Though impressively porous, the Shrem feels dense with an appreciation for architectural basics—the heaviness of materials versus the play of light, the procession from a wide public plaza to intimate encounters with art and back again—and a certain fatigue with old, which is to say flashy, solutions. This is the tone, ambitious but deliberate, that I mentioned earlier. The corrugated exterior walls, with a vertical pattern that is almost delicate enough to read like piping or pinstripes, are a good indication of how this plays out in material terms; they are substantial and finely detailed at the same time, and they give the building—despite its modest volume—a kind of solidity and even a sense of compression that marks a noticeable break from the SANAA school’s interest in weightlessness and ethereality.
The Shrem is much less a sign of maturity or mastery than a collection of ideas, nearly all of them pointing more or less away from form-making as a goal in its own right and toward a new dedication to a complex economy of means and compactness of execution. That the building is not entirely self-possessed may say less about the skill of its architects than about the entrenched position of the notions it is fighting against as well as the eternal slowness of the architectural career arc.