McMuseum: The New de Young

The proposed new de Young Museum brings McArchitecture to S.F.

What distinguishes San Francisco from the world's McCities is beautiful civic architecture, gems such as City Hall, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the concourse in Golden Gate Park. But the city that used to know how is struggling to find its architectural way. During the 1970s, downtown became littered with buildings best described as concrete refrigerators. The 1980s brought chain store logo architecture into the neighbor- hoods, and with the 1990s came the house- in-a-box loft craze.
Judging by recent events, San Francisco's legacy for the next millennium may be grand, dysfunctional public buildings.

The lead story in the Aug. 27 San Francisco Chronicle quoted from a scathing report on San Francisco's most recent public building misstep. "The [building], while designed to be a grand public space, does not function as effectively as it should or as effectively as peer institutions do," said the report, which noted a lack of usable space and a baffling floor plan as the building's major drawbacks.

The building this report referred to was San Francisco's 3-year-old Main Library. The profound library blunders have already been committed, but replace the word "library" with "new de Young" and the report could just as well describe what is being planned for the new museum.

At least the library looks like it belongs in Civic Center. In the beautiful Golden Gate Park concourse, the warm and inviting -- but seismically unstable -- de Young Museum is to be replaced with a building that manages to combine poor function and embarrassingly bad form. The proposed structure has been compared to a Midwestern airport terminal, a discount furniture store, a car dealership, and worse.

When the plan was unveiled, public reaction was swift and negative. During an August informational meeting, Harry Parker III, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, presented the design -- conceived by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron -- as a done deal. Is it? Let's hope not, since the proposal does not pass minimal architectural requirements.

The de Young Museum is a major cultural center for the entire Bay Area, and the Bay Area needs better culture than this McMuseum will ever be able to offer.

Lack of context is the proposed new de Young's biggest weakness. The building adds nothing to San Francisco's architectural or historical heritage, nor does its bright, massive design fit into Golden Gate Park's concourse. The building was conceived in the spirit of internationalism originated by another Swiss-born architect, Le Corbusier, during the 1920s. His style was innovative then. It has been done to death since.

Large blank walls, awkward angles, glass façades, and stark rooflines characterize Le Corbusier's buildings, and the new de Young. Internationalist buildings are not designed to blend with their surroundings; they are designed to make a statement, as if statement alone can compensate for inherent sterility. Apologists praise internationalism in purple prose -- describing "bold austere lines that transcend the landscape" -- probably because these buildings could not win self-congratulatory architectural awards if they were more realistically called "clunky structures that clash with their surroundings, but are at least cheap to build."

The Golden Gate Park concourse is not a field in Kansas. An internationalist building in a beaux-arts concourse is about as relevant as a screen door on a submarine.

This is not to suggest that the new de Young must adhere to Spanish, beaux-arts, Victorian, or even the current museum's faux Egyptian motifs. But if the design does not reflect San Francisco's or the park's architectural traditions, it should at least transcend rather than diminish its site.

The architects have emphasized that the building will not be unduly massive. They are quick to point out that the building has a smaller footprint than the current structure. This is misleading. While the footprint might be smaller, the façade is massive. In its original design, it presented Tea Garden Drive, the concourse's entry road, with a 500-foot-by-40-foot wall with bright off-white coloration and glass. (For comparison, a football field is 60 percent of this length from end zone to end zone.)

This mass does not compare well with the current building's façade, which beckons visitors with a recessed entryway set behind a tranquil pool, and a building colored in a warm shade of pinkish brown.

As if to offset one mistake with another, the architects have accented the building with a 160-foot tower rising from the northern corner. The tower, when viewed from the front of the building, is wider at the top than at its base, giving it an unsettling inverted appearance.

To justify this mistake, the architects have given the tower a purpose. It is a "viewing tower," ostensibly there so museum visitors can view surrounding neighborhoods from a monstrous perch. Why a museum needs a viewing tower any more than it needs a roller coaster remains a mystery. It was the tower, as much as the bland building, that brought on the public's negative reaction to the design. Now, even the architects seem to have tacitly admitted their mistake. In their Aug. 16 presentation, they mostly displayed renditions that looked down on the building's roof, a perspective from which the tower becomes invisible. The presentation's printed materials contained no ground-level view of the building at all.

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