De Young Museum | icon 031 | January 2006

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photo: Duccio Malagamba photo: Mark Darley photo: Dennis Gilbert

words Marcus Fairs

An earthquake brought Herzog and de Meuron to San Francisco, and the building they have given the city looks like the remnant of a lost civilisation.

Drifting amid the dank cedars of Golden Gate Park, atop the hill that separates the bulk of the city from the ocean, the new de Young Museum’s tower looms through the Pacific fog like a 21st-century Chichén Itzá, while primeval vegetation infests the fissures in its carapace. At night, the building glows eerily, like the Marie Celeste.

Golden Gate Park has an end-of-the-world feel to it, and is regularly shrouded in the same “stynkinge fogges” that Sir Francis Drake cursed in 1579 as he mapped the California coast (and which prevented him from discovering the entrance to San Francisco Bay).

Ghost ships and Mayan ruins are appropriate metaphors in a city that lives in perpetual expectation of cataclysm at the hands of California’s San Andreas Fault. Indeed, earthquakes did for both antecedents of Herzog & de Meuron’s de Young Museum. The first, an Egyptian-style affair gifted to the city by San Francisco Chronicle owner Michael de Young, was smashed in 1906 by a tremor, while its Spanish colonial replacement was shattered by the earthquake that hit in 1989.

This time, the museum has taken no chances: its new building is base-isolated, resting on rubber pads that mean the entire building can ride out a 7.8 Richter quake and lurch undamaged up to six feet in any direction. When “the big one” hits, the structure will be one of the few things in the city guaranteed to survive intact.

San Francisco, birthplace of the beatnik and hippy movements, has impeccable counter-culture credentials, yet is desperately conservative when it comes to the high arts: the city is untouched by contemporary architecture save for Mario Botta’s pompous 1994 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

When the 1989 Loma Prieta quake rendered the Mark ll de Young dangerously Uninhabitable, the city (which owned the site, the damaged building and the collection) voted twice against bond issues that would have funded rebuilding, and, in addition, vetoed a plan to move the museum downtown.

Step forward Diane “Dede” Wilsey, president of the museum’s board and the kind of go-getter only America can produce. A charmingly unstoppable 61-year-old blonde with expensive-looking teeth, Dede is a descendant of the Dow Chemical dynasty, daughter of President Eisenhower’s chief of protocol and widow of the philanthropist Al Wilsey.

Giving up on the public purse, she single-handedly raised $180m in funding for the museum, tapping up the West Coast aristocracy for donations towards a building few of them are likely to understand.

Wilsey – whose Pacific Heights home reputedly contains Louis XIV furniture, a Rodin bust and a Fabergé egg – admits she wouldn’t have chosen Herzog & de Meuron for a domestic project, yet she and museum director Harry S Parker III were determined to bring credible architecture to their city.

They sounded out and rejected all the usual suspects (“Norman Foster was too busy,” Wilsey recalls. “We didn’t ask Renzo Piano – I couldn’t imagine him dealing with all the public meetings”), until a chance encounter with Herzog & de Meuron in their hometown of Basel – where Wilsey and Parker had gone to inspect Piano’s Beyeler Foundation Museum – convinced her she had found a practice she could work with. Among other things, Wilsey liked the fact that their office was in a historic building.

It was to prove a shrewd choice. Herzog & de Meuron, then relatively unknown, went on to seal their international reputation with Tate Modern, London’s art Nautilus, and came close to winning the ultimate museum prize of designing New York’s expanded Museum of Modern Art.

But the de Young is no MoMA: its collection is a motley accrual of artworks and artefacts from the Americas, Africa and Oceania, containing nick-nacks such as a Frank Lloyd Wright window, drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, some spectacular tribal headdresses from Guinea and lots of old chairs. Being stuck in the middle of a vast park far from the centre of the city, it was always a peripheral and somewhat provincial attraction.

“The first thing we asked Jacques [Herzog] and Pierre [de Meuron] was how do you house these diverse collections and not end up with a hotch-potch,” says Parker.

“We started from the art,” explains de Meuron, at the museum’s opening. “We just lined up every piece of the collection [on a computer screen] and categorised them – but without putting them in a hierarchy and without saying this piece is more important.” Which, of course, was relatively easy, as the collection is short on masterpieces.

In fact, the building’s greatest strength is the way it deals with the weakness of its contents: it never once upstages the exhibits, but rather provides you with numerous pleasurable ways of skipping through them.

“We originally planned to have individual pavilions like in the Forbidden City in Beijing,” says Herzog, who saw the potential to create a building that could be experienced in the same way as the park in which it sits, with multiple entrance points (the building is permeable on three of its four sides) and galleries that could be visited in any order. “To walk from one gallery to the next should be a real pleasure: to walk inside, to walk outside.”

“We don’t believe this kind of museum should have one entrance that you stand in front of, like the Metropolitan in New York,” says de Meuron. “This is an idea from another time.”

However, the statement is slightly disingenuous since most visitors to the museum – and indeed the Golden Gate Park itself – will arrive via the huge new car park beneath the museum. The reality of its isolated location is that most people will not walk towards it through the trees, but ascend into it from below.

The built iteration of the plan sees the programme arranged in three irregular “fingers”, which collide tectonically in places and then rip apart, creating deep-glazed gashes that allow landscape – and light – to penetrate the depths of the otherwise monolithic superstructure.

It sounds confusing, and it is: without traditional points of reference such as a main entrance or a stair tower, it’s easy to forget where you are in this unceremonious and somewhat rambling building. But Herzog & de Meuron have precluded terminal disorientation by placing an airy, covered double-height courtyard – fed by a grand staircase – right in the centre.

“The court is the heart of the building,” says de Meuron. “Everyone has the freedom to start their visit from different parts, but always coming back to the central point of orientation.”

Externally, the monotonous hull is enlivened at one end by an observation tower, resembling a ship’s bridge, that has been subjected to unexplained torque and whose formal genesis sounds rather spurious: it twists as it rises so that the upper viewing deck is parallel to the grid of the city beyond. At the other end, a giant downward-sloping extension of the roof line creates a brooding prow that the architects liken to a porch. “One could say it’s a useless element,” de Meuron concedes. “You need it as a counterpoint to the tower. It is a transition space from inside to outside.”

The building’s copper skin is on an accelerated path to antiquity, and will turn green as it oxidises over the next ten years, making the building recede deeper into the surrounding forest. The 3,600 unique copper panels are embossed and perforated to varying degrees in pixelated patterns derived from photographs of the park’s arboreal canopy – albeit abstracted to the point where the source is unrecognisable. In places, such as on the tower and the porch, the cladding is as diaphanous as a veil: elsewhere it resembles camouflage netting or tree bark. With the copper now in dull, leathery transit between a Duracell-bright and a lichen-like patination, it is perhaps best to reserve judgement on the cladding’s success.

“We wanted to find a skin that was as alive as a forest, or the canopy of a tree,” explains de Meuron. “Like when you look up through the leaves and branches of a tree to the sky. This fragility of the material and the fragility of the weather is very important.”

And the fragility of the city itself: sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific work in the museum’s open-air courtyard features a chiselled hairline fracture that zigzags across the flagstones, splitting open several huge blocks of stone as it goes. “It’s to remind us that we are all here at the mercy of the Gods,” says Dede Wilsey.

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