Why SFMOMA Built a Tiny Version of Itself

Curators can use a scale model of the museum to lay everything out in advance.

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.

The original Botta staircase.

The original Botta-designed staircase.

Photographer: Richard Barnes/OTTO

"It looked like the lobby of a Neiman Marcus in Dallas," says David Meckel, the local architect who advised SFMOMA on its competition in 2010 for a new architect to design the addition. He and SFMOMA selected Snohetta after narrowing the design competition to four firms, including Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and Foster & Partners. Snohetta had the least experience with museums, but Meckel says Neal Benezra, SFMOMA's director, was "totally mesmerized" on a visit to the Snohetta-designed Oslo Opera House, where the public can roam freely all over the structure like a massive jungle gym. "It's all about creating a series of spaces and experiences," says Meckel.

The new Snohetta-designed staircase during construction.

The new Snohetta-designed staircase during construction.

Photographer: Henrik Kam/Snohetta

Snohetta replaced Botta's granite monolith from 1995 with a wide, wooden stairway that rises only one story with a sharp left turn in the middle. The new entryway is meant to flow like a river of people beneath the skylight, delivering visitors, before anyone has to pay a dime, to the first floor of Snohetta's new wing, where art will be displayed in big, glass-walled galleries that the public can see without buying a ticket. The goal, says Snohetta founder Craig Dykers, was to leave Botta's iconic exterior intact, while making SFMOMA more accessible, even to nonpaying visitors.

"I like to say we and the Botta building are like dancing partners," Dykers says. "We each move freely with our own personality."

The exterior of the SFMOMA.
The exterior of the SFMOMA.
Source: Jon McNeal/Snohetta

Given the civic warfare that has stalled so many other San Francisco projects, the extension rose with remarkable dispatch. At first the Fishers proposed building their own museum in the Presidio, the city's sprawling army-base-turned-national-park astride the Golden Gate Bridge, so that Don Fisher could "have some fun being the curator of my collection," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Rebuffed by the Presidio's board, the family agreed shortly before Don Fisher's death in 2009 to give SFMOMA exhibition rights to the 1,100-piece collection in a newly built wing for 100 years. The extension's opening show will feature 260 works from the Fisher collection by such artists as Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Chuck Close, and Andy Warhol.

Botta isn't very happy with the extension. In an e-mail sent from his studio in Mendrisio, Switzerland, Snohetta’s design, he writes, "answers to technical-functional (needs), rather than to symbolic and metaphorical terms." Botta says he had a grander vision for the crowded downtown space. "I took the design for the museum as an opportunity to offer a new landmark to the city beyond only the need for exhibition spaces."

Dykers says the extension defers to Botta's vision, but he understands "it's natural and inevitable" Botta might respond critically. Says Dykers, "We did the best we could."


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