SFMOMA Expansion in San Francisco, California by Snøhetta, 2011
Since the unveiling of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's (SFMOMA) expansion plans in late May, responses to the design by Norway-based Snøhetta are strong yet mixed. Most notably San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King called it "imaginative and utterly unexpected...an inventive way to double the [museum's] size." Alternatively L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne described the 225,000-sf (20,000-sm) addition to SFMOMA's 1995 Mario Botta building as "a chiseled behemoth, ... disingenuous, impressive and amusing all at once."
What each article agrees upon is that the design is preliminary and will probably change greatly between now and the anticipated completion five years from now; the architects even contend that their unveiled design is "a preview of a preview." The design fits a roughly 100-foot by 335-foot (30-meter by 102-meter) parcel immediately behind the Botta building. Seen from Yerba Buena Gardens (second photo) and the Metreon, the expansion is perpendicular to the strong NE-SW axis of Botta's terraces and truncated cylinder. If anything, Snøhetta's monolithic design serves to reinforce this axis with a dip in the roofline that preserves a view towards the 1925 Pacific Telephone Tower.
Pedestrian routes will enliven the streets surrounding the museum and create a procession of stairs and platforms leading up to the new building, echoing the network of paths, stairways, and terracing that is a trademark of the city. -Craig Dykers, SnøhettaOf the five released images for the design, all shown here, most provide aerial views, showing the tapered plan of the uppermost floors and the long elevation facing northeast. Very few openings can be found within the facades covered in a to-be-determined solid material (GFRC is one possibility mentioned), raising a flag about how the building will fit in its urban context. A glass entrance to the south on Howard Street (taking over a fire station that will be replaced by SFMOMA nearby) is one of the few places where the expansion opens itself up to the city, echoing Botta's primarily solid original.
The aerial views may push the focus to the attempts at breaking down the large mass of the addition -- what Hawthorne equates with a cruise ship -- and the sculpting of the roofline (as if the view from Yerba Buena Gardens were all that mattered), but they also highlight the most creative aspect of the design: the elevated promenade that knits various buildings within the block together. Yet it is not clear currently how terraces atop the new building and what appears to be a rooftop sculpture garden atop an existing building to the north mesh with public circulation from the ground. Plans and interior renderings are needed to fully appreciate the design. At the moment the abstract monolith is straddling a fine line between being a good neighbor, by taking advantage of a difficult mid-block site, and being an overbearing presence in the city, by wrapping itself in way that prioritizes protecting the recently donated collection that is the impetus for such a large expansion.