An Art Museum Inspired By the Fields That Surround It

The new Manetti Shrem Art Museum at UC Davis reflects the landscape and history.

The patchwork of fields splayed out over California’s Central Valley was the inspiration for UC Davis’s Manetti Shrem Art Museum, opening this month after two years of construction. Behind its design is the Brooklyn-based firm SO-IL. It’s rare that a commission would have as much breathing room as the Shrem’s, a project that caught SO-IL’s attention with a contest back in 2012. The contractor, Whiting-Turner, along with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a more established firm with offices in California, completed the team. It wasn’t long before passersby in the valley could see the structure’s sweeping aluminum canopy take shape, hovering above the landscape.

Today, it contains the art museum, as well as classrooms, workshops, and exhibition spaces. Perforations in the canopy—arranged in a grid that echoes the surrounding terrain—allow shifting rectangular patterns of light to shed on a plaza out front. “The light and shadow enhance the sense of place, the notion of being part of the environment,” says SO-IL partner Florian Idenburg. “It’s a clear space on campus for students to enjoy.” Adding to this, the building’s outermost walls slate floor-to-ceiling stretches of glass between slabs of textured concrete. The effect, overall, is meant to evoke the open-minded spirit of the art department’s beginnings in the 1960s. It instituted a multidisciplinary approach from the start—an especially notable move at the time, considering the school was best known for its agriculture program.

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