Snøhetta's new home for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hopes to change everything from how you walk through exhibitions to how you kiss in them.
By John Gendall
Photos by Justin Kaneps
May 13, 2016
Craig Dykers, a founding partner of the Oslo- and New York–based architecture and design firm Snøhetta, is fresh from completing the highly anticipated expansion to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). For Dykers, though, the completed building itself is just one point of departure. As he sees it, to know and evaluate it would take at least a year of watching just how people move through its spaces. “We don’t like to publish our buildings as soon as they’re completed,” he says during a conversation at the firm’s U.S. base in New York’s Financial District. “We prefer to wait a year to see how they’re used.”
This approach is the product of Snøhetta’s having gone through the unpredictable process of designing several landmark projects on complex sites. When the firm first came onto the world stage, back in 1989, Dykers and his design partners had devised the winning scheme in an international competition for a new library in Alexandria, Egypt. With an opening date set for September 2001, world events forced the building to open quietly and set the project against the backdrop of political turbulence in the Middle East. Since then, Snøhetta has taken on designing the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo (2007), the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion (2014), and a refresh of the streetscapes in Times Square, set to be completed at the end of 2016. Snøhetta is one of seven firms currently in contention to design the Barack Obama Presidential Center.
Of the firm’s multifarious projects, Dykers says, “You can’t predetermine how people will be. If you make a model for how people are supposed to behave, the first thing they’ll do is break that model.”
Exactly what he looks for as he evaluates his buildings is very much his own proprietary blend. There are the standard bucket-list items—things like energy, performance, and visitor numbers—but there are also other, more qualitative metrics: “One of the things we’re going to try to count [at SFMOMA],” he says, “is the number of people kissing in the building.”
Dykers thinks deliberately about how people move through space. “I went to Grand Central Terminal and watched everyone moving through the Great Hall,” he recalls. “Everyone loves that space, and they always say, ‘It’s so nice—you never bump into anybody.’” Whereas the most likely explanation for that effect would seem, at first glance, to be the space’s soaring vaults, Dykers offers another theory: “They put that information kiosk dead center in the middle of that space. That way, everyone has the same problem—they all have to get around it. If you took that away, everyone would take the shortest route possible, and everyone would bump into each other in the middle,” he says.
This kind of sensitivity to the human experience of space has come to distinguish Snøhetta’s oeuvre, and so it will be at SFMOMA. There, the firm’s expansion more than doubles the space of the original museum, designed by Mario Botta in 1995, by adding a 10-story tower immediately behind the existing building.
At first glance, the new SFMOMA tower seems to be entirely distinct, its faceted white surface—a skin of lightweight panels—contrasting with Botta’s monumental marble forms. But to Dykers the two are fundamentally related. “When we’re working with existing architecture,” he says, “we think of it in terms of being a dance partner: You don’t want to duplicate their steps because you’ll step on each other’s toes, but you’re still dancing with a partner.” The new responds to the old without pandering. As Dykers puts it, “Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.”
There are nuanced ways he tied the two structures together. The color of the addition’s skin, made with sand from nearby Monterey Bay, corresponds to the color of the marble Botta used on the oculus. And in the original, Botta created a series of terraces that step upward—a “wedding cake design,” as Dykers calls it—and the addition extends this rhythm upward in its own setbacks.
But Dykers also made notable departures. Whereas the Botta building is squat and solid, framed by thickened walls, Snøhetta’s is vertical and light, emphasizing transparency. That feeling of openness was one of Dykers’s principle objectives. “Many people think that modern art is alien to their lives,” he says. “But to open up that world to people is what the museum is all about.”
Dykers achieves openness in a number of ways. First, there’s the transparency of the ground-level spaces. Glass openings connect the sidewalk with the first-floor gallery (which remains free and open to anyone), providing a visual connectivity between the museum and the city. Dykers designed the building’s circulation to be inviting, too, making the stairs as enticing as possible. “When you take a stair, you feel more connected to a place than if you push a button and wait for the [elevator] doors to open,” he says. The challenge for SFMOMA, though, was the very verticality of the expansion. “Museums, like many things, work best horizontally,” Dykers says. “People don’t like to go up and down too much, so we had to make interesting ways for people to move between the floors—without a sense of being funneled into a staircase.”
Despite Dykers’s warmth and candor speaking about the SFMOMA project, the experience wasn’t all a bed of roses. When Snøhetta unveiled the scheme in 2011, as is often the case with museum projects, it wasn’t immediately met with glowing reviews. “The new wing is a chiseled behemoth,” wrote Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times’s architecture critic, “and though it does its best to hide, trim, shade, and disguise its bulk, the result is somehow disingenuous, impressive and amusing all at once, like an iceberg trying to convince everybody that it is in fact an ice cube.”
Dykers lets those kinds of criticisms roll off. “All museum expansions elicit reactions, and we knew that going in,” he says. “We were surprised, actually, that we had unanimous approval all the way through the process.”
Already, the project has given a big shot of B12 to the Bay Area’s art scene. Two art-world titans, the gallerists Larry Gagosian and John Berggruen, are poised to open new outposts opposite SFMOMA’s entrance. Anton Kern and Andrew Kreps have also announced they’ll be unveiling San Francisco locations and tying opening dates to the museum’s relaunch. And Untitled, the art fair based in Miami, has announced a San Francisco edition to take place next January. “The last three years have been a long dry spell, so having a strong museum of contemporary art back up and running raises the temperature in the community,” says San Francisco Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais. “But,” he goes on to caution, “people will want to capitalize in the short term, so one thing we’ll be watching is how long they’ll stick it out. Berggruen is a solid business and part of the community, so his move makes sense. For others, we’ll have to wait and see.”
If Snøhetta’s track record of creating robust urban interventions is any indication, SFMOMA’s new building will continue to spur plenty of activity, cultural and otherwise, both inside and outside its walls. Dykers will certainly be back next year to check in on it, studying the unexpected ways in which it’s being used.