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De Young Museum

Herzog & de Meuron

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.
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