Yet again, the architects Herzog & de Meuron have made a building that might be termed paradoxical. Amid the lush foliage of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, their new, copper-clad de Young Memorial Museum reads as both mass and volume. It can be interpreted as both a tailored box—cut into and indented—and a conglomeration of broad interior spaces that crisscross and segue seamlessly past each other.
Paradox for these ambitious Swiss architects is not the same as irony, or sarcasm. Paradox is not cleverness for cleverness sake. Induced by their careful study of building elements, and of the spaces these elements help define, the paradox of Herzog & de Meuron’s architecture serves, admirably, to engage our senses. First, vision. Then the brain. Finally the human body as it moves and begins to explore the fullness of the built object.
From the park, the de Young Museum is big (420 feet long) and very slightly humpbacked. It is in fact shorter than the building (504 feet) damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake and subsequently demolished. As with the previous museum, an eclectic Hispanic composition, there is one iconic tower. The new tower is situated not on a neo-classical axis but to one corner; it is not symmetrical and static but twists up, vortex-like, to a viewing terrace that reorientates the visitor to the city, to the Golden Gate Bridge, and to the Pacific Ocean with its cloud and fog to the west.
The flanks of Herzog & de Meuron’s museum are clad from roof to ground and from end to end in copper; only a few slim rectangles of glass push forward as flush windows to interrupt these remarkable expanses of a single material. Looking at the tower however, with stairs spilling down inside both short elevations, it’s apparent that this copper is not solid but a gossamer-like sheath through which the inner construction becomes partially legible as the quality of light changes and as the viewer adjusts position.
What at first glance appeared monolithic becomes now protean and kinetic. This changeability and nuance in texture is due to a pattern of holes, small but of varying dimensions, and semicircular indentations both concave and convex. The entire building tends to ripple. The skin—or, perhaps better, the metal hide— is assembled from 7,200 copper panels, few if any of which are identical.
Seldom obsessed with technology “per se”, Herzog & de Meuron collaborated for the fabrication of these panels with Kansas City-based A. Zahner Company. Together they were able to translate images of trees, photographed by the architects in Golden Gate Park, into industrially produced, three-dimensional surfaces. These highly abstract surfaces filter or reflect the sunlight. As one might detect faces in cloud cover, or read specific silhouettes from random shadows, the public is engaged with the building emotionally, is connected momentarily back to the natural world.
Visitors enter from the park into an oblong patio, now home to an installation by the British artist Andy Goldsworthy; or through one of several triangular incisions into the outer carapace that also allow the landscape to seemingly flow through the building; or under a grand, hovering canopy into the museum café—imagine the underside of a spaceship designed by a Pop-conscious couturier of the 1960s such as André Courrèges or Paco Rabanne. On inspection, the building becomes increasingly jewel-like.
The de Young is in fact the first freestanding museum built by the Swiss architects. At Tate Modern they seized on the vast proportions of the existing Turbine Hall to insert a broad, gently inclined ramp and create an indoor civic plaza. In San Francisco, a free flow of visitors is encouraged from the park throughout the ground floor, corridors are kept to a minimum and galleries double as circulation space.
At the centre of the ground floor, in a double-height hallway facing Gerhard Richter’s wall piece Strontium, an open staircase tapers up to the main gallery level above. As the twisting tower outside reiterates the single tower of the old museum building, this central hall—Wilsey Court—recalls the Hearst Court of the previous de Young complex. It is the centre of Herzog & de Meuron’s plan and of their thinking about the museum interior as a kind of social matrix.
The perforated copper walls, the visor-like canopy and the twisting tower establish the new de Young’s unique architectural iconography. Yet the true value of the museum experience is inevitably in the interior. Inside—as with many works titled “Concetto Spaziale” by the artist Lucio Fontana—the outside breaks through; monolithic form is torn apart to allow in light and space through a series of glazed crevices that run through the length of the museum. These narrow crevices have been planted with eucalyptus and ferns by the landscape architect Walter Hood.
Some upper level galleries—Colonial American art, for example—are rectilinear rooms arranged in a traditional enfilade, leading simply one to the next but here in San Francisco with the most elegant skylights, flush glass boxes ascending into the roof and providing indirect illumination from the exterior. Other galleries—for the Museum’s extensive Oceanic and African collections—are open, almost freeform spaces pinned by large vitrines that hide their structure from view.
In these sumptuous galleries, eucalyptus is used to wrap floor, wall, bench, ceiling and vitrine. Visitors can enjoy peripheral views out through veils of copper to the park outside or test the triangular seats designed by Herzog & de Meuron as low, extra-large stools (one version rising, the other falling towards its centre). The vitrines are somewhat orthodox or regimented but the flow of space from one zone to the next entices movement and exploration.
This sense of movement, the exploration of spatial paradoxes set by the architects, animates this large institutional building. The glazed indentations set up curious glimpses and reflections between inside and out. The tower, which one might expect to house curators and trustees, is used for public education purposes. And in Wilsey Court, Herzog & de Meuron have hollowed out the underside of the tapering staircase to present weary museum-goers with an unexpected, sensuously-shaped bench. At Tate Modern there is one extraordinary social space; in San Francisco, the entire body of the museum becomes a site for social interaction.