Thanks to a new building designed by Snøhetta, the San Francisco gallery has more floorspace than MoMA – but the marriage of old and new is not a happy one
The word “art” floats in a cartoon cloud above the street in the architect’s sketchbook, on display in the new $305m (£209m) extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Environmental concept”, reads a scribbled note on the page. “Fog.”
Norwegian architects Snøhetta, designers of the chiselled 10-storey addition to SFMOMA, due to open to the public on 14 May, are fond of their natural metaphors. They talk of their spectacular opera house in Oslo as an iceberg, their cultural centre planned for the deserts of Saudi Arabia as a pile of pebbles, while here in San Francisco they have attempted to conjure something as light and vaporous as the city’s famous coastal mists.
Fog isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you encounter the rippling white cliff face that now looms behind the museum’s original home, built in 1995 by Swiss po-mo maestro Mario Botta. It looks more like a gigantic meringue, a building-sized baked alaska slumped on the skyline between Botta’s weighty temple and the elegant Art Deco tower of the Pacific Bell building behind.
“We wanted something much lighter, more open and transparent than our existing home,” says Neal Benezra, director of the museum since 2002. “Botta gave us this big, muscular, iconic presence that we needed when we first moved here, to what was then quite a run-down neighbourhood, but times have changed. Back then, a museum’s fundamental role was about taking care of and protecting the art, but this century it’s much more about the visitor experience.”
The vast new extension almost triples the museum’s display area to 175,000 square feet (16,250 square metres) – providing 40% more gallery space than even the Museum of Modern Art in New York – arranged as a stack of floors behind the existing building, wrapped in an amorphous shell that bulges out around its midriff, in order to fit more floorspace on the relatively narrow lot. […]