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Reopening the De Young Museum

When San Francisco's De Young Museum reopens on October 15 after nearly four years of construction, a city that fights doggedly to preserve its beloved Victorian neighborhoods will welcome the most adventurous modern architecture to be built there in a generation, if not ever. On its eastern end, the building spirals skyward above the eucalyptus trees and redwoods of Golden Gate Park with a twisting nine-story copper tower. Its westernmost flank spreads out into the park with a 50-foot cantilever that shelters a dining terrace two stories below.

The new De Young is the unorthodox achievement by Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. It's impossible to pin a signature style on them, but their work—including such distinctive projects as London's Tate Modern, the expansion of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Prada flagship in Tokyo—and this brilliant sample of it will instantly boost the city's architectural stature.

Until 2002, the De Young collections, treasured by citizens and visitors, were housed in ornate Spanish-revival buildings left over from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, plus subsequent additions. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused major internal structural damage to the complex. Although the museum was able to shore up the buildings, by 1997 the Federal Commission on Arts and Humanities had ceased to indemnify art lent from abroad, because of the structure's vulnerability. The commission's assessment put an end to the De Young's ability to host major traveling exhibitions—and jump-started plans to build a replacement on the same site.

After San Francisco voters narrowly rejected bond issues to finance a new building, the De Young's trustees stepped up to raise the money privately. Board president Dede Wilsey led the fund-raising campaign, which brought in $180 million. Together, she and her late husband, Alfred Spalding Wilsey, gave more than $10 million. Later, in Wilsey's memory, Dede commissioned German artist Gerhard Richter's Strontium mural for the museum.

The Richter commission was one of five (others went to James Turrell, Kiki Smith, Andy Goldsworthy, and Ed Ruscha) for the new De Young, whose innovative design doubled the museum's exhibition space while reducing the footprint of the former buildings by almost 40 percent. The exterior is clad in a shimmering metallic skin of 7,200 perforated and embossed copper panels. No two panels are alike, and the pattern of dots on the copper creates a huge, abstract, pixelated image of sunlight streaming through the branches of trees. As it ages, this skin will fade to a muted cinnamon and eventually oxidize to a shade of dark green.

Inside, the architects experimented with unusual materials and touches of bold color. Walls and information desks in the lobby gleam with a patented mixture of marble dust and plaster called Arcustone, a coating originally developed in Europe to restore historic buildings. In the hands of Herzog and de Meuron, the composite material takes on an unexpected sheen. The auditorium has eggplant-hued felt walls and leather seats with the patina of old baseball gloves.

Throughout, the architects have sought to draw the park into the building. Though not courtyards in the traditional sense, angular slits of landscape bring natural light into the center of the structure. One wedge contains a grove of eucalyptus trees, visible through glass walls from the entry court and two galleries that surround it. The plan, created by Bay Area designer Walter Hood, incorporates 100-year-old palms saved from the original grounds and replanted along the new entry plaza.

The De Young accommodates with ease the breadth of its holdings, which range from 17th- to 21st-century American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts to outstanding Latin American, African, and Oceanic art. One collection figures prominently: 2,000 artifacts from New Guinea, a promised gift from Marcia and John Friede of New York. "We believe it is the finest Oceanic art in the United States," says Harry S. Parker III, the museum's director. "We were lucky. As we planned the galleries we were able to customize space for the collection." Many of the larger works, including 12-foot-tall headdresses, are displayed in vitrines that allow visitors to admire them from four sides.

The galleries, on three stories, have floors of Italian porphyry stone or Sydney Blue eucalyptus. American paintings and decorative arts are displayed in classically proportioned rooms painted in slate blue, pale silver, and dark brown tones, while bigger pieces from Africa, as well as contemporary works, are shown in open loftlike spaces with windows that overlook the park. The special exhibitions gallery will be inaugurated with "Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh," a landmark show of objects from the golden age of dynastic Egypt (through Feb. 6).

Although the De Young was built with private funding, more than 150 public meetings about its design and construction were held. "San Francisco is very keen on making everybody happy. Whole buildings are designed by committee. You need some guidelines, but carried to an extreme, it can kill creativity," Parker notes. Fortunately, there's no shortage of creativity in the new De Young.

DE YOUNG MUSEUM, 50 Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park; 415/750-3600; www.deyoungmuseum.org.

RAUL BARRENECHE is a contributing editor for T+L.

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