On San Francisco Skyline, Architecture Worthy of the Art Inside

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Occasionally a work of architecture is so compelling, so well crafted, so imaginatively conceived both aesthetically and functionally, that it makes me wish I had designed it. That was my reaction when I recently visited San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to see the new de Young Museum, justifiably described in the museum's brochure as "a landmark building that dramatically integrates art, architecture and nature."

One of the two Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the de Young is a venerable public museum with a diverse collection that includes art of the Americas, Native American art, pre-modern and contemporary American art, and African and Asian art.

But what makes the de Young worth writing and reading about here in the nation's capital, where museums abound, is not its impressive collection. Rather it is the vital architectural lessons the new museum conveys, lessons transcending San Francisco, Golden Gate Park or the de Young itself.

The de Young brilliantly shows how potent and inspirational architecture can be, no matter what the building type, when structure and landscape are beautifully fused. And today, when some new museum architecture competes with and eclipses the art inside, the de Young demonstrates how a boldly configured, aesthetically innovative building can house an eclectic art collection without overpowering it.

Machine and garden are inextricably interwoven at the de Young. Contrasting realms, the man-made and nature-made, are juxtaposed and unified through artful composition of geometric volumes, space, industrially produced construction materials and fundamental elements of nature.

This lesson is important because, too often, buildings feebly engage their sites, whether an urban street, a public park or a natural landscape. Often buildings are autonomous objects, unresponsive to the characteristics of their surroundings. Many could be almost anywhere.

In Washington, we perceive that museums along the Mall fit in well with the landscape and ceremonial avenues. But some of these, despite stylistic variations, are really generic edifices that could sit next to or within a park or face a boulevard in any American city.

The site specificity of the neoclassical National Gallery of Art West Building, for example, is minimal, in contrast with the Gallery's decidedly modern East Building. Notwithstanding its effectiveness as a museum, the hermetic West Building provides few formal, visual or symbolic links to the environment outside.

By contrast, thanks to strategically placed windows, the East Building offers periodic, welcome views of the city and Mall landscape. And its site-driven, articulated solid-and-void massing contributes to perceptions that the museum is interlocked with its site.

The de Young Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron and landscape architect Walter Hood, interacts with its site in a similar way. It embraces its park setting and landscape with deeply gouged, acutely angled courtyards cut into the building's rectangular volume, pointedly allowing the exterior landscape to bite into the building.

Slicing through the three-story, copper-clad museum is a pair of long, narrow courtyards, their perimeters bounded by walls of glass or metal. The sliver-like Fern Court and Eucalyptus Court are aligned and bisect the building. They serve as a metaphoric fault-line evoking the geology of the Bay Area. Within each courtyard, undulating topography, native plants and arrangements of stone seem at once choreographed and natural, always enhanced by the ever-changing quality of daylight.

Visitors inside periodically are aware of the sky along with plants, diverse paving patterns and textures and the subtle movement of water.

The grass-covered Osher Sculpture Garden flanks the west side of the museum, where the café's expansive glass wall overlooks a broad dining terrace. A ponderous, cantilevered, slightly sagging roof overhang stretches across the full width of the west facade and projects dozens of feet out over the terrace and garden. The design intention is clear: Exploit building structure to reach out, capture space and become part of the sculpture garden.

The de Young is really two structures. Rising from the museum building's northeast corner is an iconic, unusually shaped 10-story tower containing educational, research and publication facilities. A twisted inverted pyramid, clad with the same, perforated copper skin as the museum below, it constitutes a memorable marquee.

Equally memorable is what visitors experience when they ascend to the fully open observation floor on top of the tower, where yet another connection is made between inside and outside worlds. Wrapped on all four sides without interruption by floor-to-ceiling glass, the observation floor offers a magnificent, 360-degree panoramic view of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay and the park below. Looking up from outside, the observation floor appears as a dark, slender, inset ribbon girdling the tower.

Imagine the Washington Monument adjacent to a museum on the Mall, and you may understand one aspect of the de Young architectural concept: making the landscape and the city itself part of the exhibition experience. Better still, go to San Francisco and see the de Young Museum yourself. It's an experience you won't soon forget.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company