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Why SFMOMA Built a Tiny Version of Itself

Curators can use a scale model of the museum to lay everything out in advance.
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Design in Miniature: San Francisco MoMA

On May 14, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will reopen after a two-year, $365 million renovation and expansion that more than doubles its size. For the addition, which will house the extraordinary art collection of the family of the late Donald Fisher and his wife, Doris, founders of Gap Inc., the museum selected the architecture firm Snohetta, of Oslo and New York. As work on the building proceeded, SFMOMA's curators planned how to exhibit art in both the existing galleries and 235,000 square feet of new space. To do so, they created a scale model of each of the seven floors and miniature versions of scores of artworks—close to 3,000 in all, according to Sarah Choi, the exhibitions design coordinator.

Of the many challenges Snohetta faced wedging the extension into the narrow lot behind Mario Botta’s original building, the most controversial was what to do about Botta's staircase. The Swiss architect had designed the stairway’s hulking granite base as the focal point of the SFMOMA’s soaring, central atrium. Bathed in natural light, the rectangular stairwell ascended through a round hole in the ceiling and into the zebra-striped oculus shooting up from the museum's roof, an iconic image that became SFMOMA's most recognizable symbol. It was an impressive feature, but it lent the ground floor a cave-like feel.