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Helen and Charles Schwab Hall featuring Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing 895: Loopy Doopy (white and blue) (1999) at SFMOMA
Helen and Charles Schwab Hall featuring Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing 895: Loopy Doopy (white and blue) (1999) at SFMOMA
© Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

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A Tale of Two Lobbies

Comparing the waiting-room mentality of SFMOMA’s new lobby with its museum brethren

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange travels west to scope out the brand-new addition to SFMOMA, which opens to the public on May 14.

The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens
Jon McNeal, © Snøhetta

How do you enter the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art? The obvious answer is, through the old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Mario Botta’s 1995 building, a symmetrical, postmodern palace of textured brick, striped marble columns, and a central sliced cylinder which creates an oculus supported by four attenuated columns. It is iconic in the truest sense of the word (one of the museum’s cafés sells a tiny cake in its image). That entrance, while low and dark, is off the neo-modernist public space Yerba Buena Gardens. There’s a path through the gardens—located in the city’s South of Market district—that leads to the museum, but its asymmetrical stripe doesn’t quite line up with the one down the museum’s face. In a foreshadowing of things to come, design fights with itself.

Those in search of novelty should enter off Howard Street, where the base of Snøhetta’s $305 million, 235,000-square-foot expansion touches down with a high glass podium, the better to showcase Richard Serra’s double figure-eight-shaped Sequence (2006). The long, narrow addition is pressed to the west side of its site, applied to the back of the old building, leaving an open-air pedestrian walkway along its side, with access to the museum’s parking garage and tiny Natoma Street.

White fiberglass-reinforced polymer facade at SFMOMA
Patricia Chang

What you can’t see, unless you walk past the glass and down Natoma, is the addition’s facade. The striated horizontal swoop of white, made out of fiberglass reinforced polymer (FRP) panels, is freshly made in Oakland, but nonetheless looks scored over time by wind or waves. Snøhetta doesn’t want to spoon-feed you metaphors, but the blue-and-white Sol LeWitt installed inside, on the walls of the second-floor foyer, also seems like a nod toward the nautical.

The view from the back side, on Natoma, includes many layers of San Francisco architecture: the gorgeous Deco-Gothic Pacific Telephone Building (Timothy Pflueger, 1925), a dark stone bridge on the back of the Botta, and the petite 1970 brick building whose material and curves presage postmodernism (Thomas Lile). As part of this patchwork, partly obscured, the Snøhetta building reads as a good citizen, adding texture and a refreshing lightness to a dense urban quilt. As a fragment, it makes sense, but the expanded museum only does intermittently, its architectural language stretched too thin in its attempt to corral competing buildings and competing ideas about how to engage the public.

Director Neal Benezra describes the Botta building as "museum as treasure house," an old way of thinking about collections "that began to break down with the Pompidou Centre. We knew Snøhetta would give the building the 21st century point-of-view that museums are for people as well as art." In his recollection, the idea of the addition as light and transparent came fairly early on in the process (a display of Snøhetta’s models on the third floor shows several resembling millefeuille). Benezra had visited their Oslo Opera House, which is "very white, very glazed, and [shows that] stairs are part of their DNA."

Enter from Howard and you scoot around or loop through the Serra, then proceed up a flight of steps beside an enormous maple bleacher. Snøhetta does indeed love these stair-mountains, and this is far from the only one inside. The idea is that these "Roman steps" will become a sort of public dune: both lobbies, and the second floor foyer that connects them, are free.

One can easily visualize the steps lively with people checking their phones and changing their babies (which I witnessed), hanging out in the presence of Serra, LeWitt, and the two commissioned Julie Mehretu murals destined to hang in the revamped lobby of the Botta. Yet none of the spaces felt fully cooked. The expanse of blonde wood on the steps felt like an easy choice, so obvious as to look a little cheap, as well as being hard on the behind. One does not linger in a seat with no back. This entrance feels generic. You could walk by the glass walls and read the building as a corporate headquarters, because the FRP panels don’t touch down on the sidewalk.

Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006) at SFMOMA
© Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

I understand why Snøhetta didn’t want to compete with the Botta on its front side, where their building angles back from the oculus with a slight slouch, disappearing into the gray sky, but there’s no reason to be so retiring here. The blonde-and-white aesthetic is Scandinavian default, with little to underline this as an art space. Commissioning some fabulous cushions from a textile artist—please, NOT in gray felt—could be the first step to the fix. (Disconcertingly, and slightly more successfully, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive also has a lobby with wooden bleacher seating.)

The situation is worse in the Botta lobby, where the architects decided, with some reluctance, to take out the grand, chunky flight of stairs the Italian architect had put at its center and replace it with … more maple. A narrow flight of stairs, with a solid railing on the same wood, that zips back and forth across the vast interior and refuses to line up. It’s vapid, it disrespects the architecture, and it still doesn’t make this lobby a place I’d like to hang out. A monumental white Calder, hanging below the circular skylight, makes little impression, and the walls waiting for the Mehretus reminded me of MoMA’s tragic upstairs atrium, where it is the rare installation that manages to pierce the blandness. It’s like a Norwegian and an Italian of different generations, on a blind date that will end after one uncomfortable drink.

The Botta lobby at SFMOMA
Patricia Chang

SFMOMA has stressed the largesse of this 43,000 square feet of free space, but after my visit I think their mantra should have been "less, but better." Dazzling the public with expanse and big names seems dated. Which precipitates the question: What museum does have a lobby I would like to hang out in? More and more art institutions have the same desire as SFMOMA to offer treats to the public without a fee. Maybe it is our casual age, as Benezra would have it. More likely, and more cynically, it is a hedge against complaints over high ticket prices. You can’t see everything, but you can see this one thing. And have a fancy coffee and go to the gift shop, while you’re at it. But precious few have managed to transform free lobby into a genuine art experience.

To review: The Museum of Modern Art’s lobby has been problematic since the Yoshio Taniguchi building opened, overcrowded with people queuing and sitting and making it difficult to see the artworks hung at that level. The low ceilings and grayness give it the feel of an airport, until you push through toward the view of the garden. MoMA has pushed their ticket-taking back to the base of the stairs and escalators as a stopgap measure, but part of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s expansion will tackle the lobby, turning it into a three-headed beast stretching from the eastern Lauder building to the edge of the old Folk Art Museum on the west. Clever visitors should be able to move through the space faster, and there might even be a spot to linger in front of the long side of the sculpture garden.

At the new Whitney, the lobby has been designed for maximum flexibility, and feels like it might be able to be cleaned out and hosed down at night.

At the Broad, the lobby is only for the ticketed, so motley queues of people have annexed the sidewalks on two sides of the building. Those with timed tickets get the limited protection of the space between the cheesegrater and the glass box it shades; those waiting for a same-day opening stretch down Bunker Hill in the sun. Even if it were more crowded, the Broad lobby is a space to push through: the escalator sucks you up, the elevator spits you out. It’s so dark after the top-floor gallery one moves gratefully toward the corner exits, pulling out sunglasses as you go.

More and more art institutions have the same desire as SFMOMA to offer treats to the public without a fee, but precious few have managed to transform the free lobby into a genuine art experience.

But it’s not all bad. At the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), the bleacher wood has more character: dark spots and light strips visible in the recycled trees that were cut down to build DSR’s addition, plus Japanese joinery details by woodworker Paul Discoe. The students seem like natural constituents for the museum’s bleachers—we all sat there companionably using the wi-fi for a while—and a projector built into the wall can turn it into another theater for the film archive. This version has a purposefulness, and a sense of enclosure, that SFMOMA’s lacks.

LACMA has essentially no lobby at all, but instead a series of outdoor spaces that contain ticket kiosks and coffee bars and photogenic public art—the stuff of lobbies—that link the museum’s motley crew of buildings. When I wrote about Peter Zumthor’s inkblot plan last spring, I thought about the beauty of wandering through the current arrangement, and my fear that the blot would suck all that energy into its mastodon legs and stifle it:

The impulse [in urban museums today] always seems to be to agglomerate more real estate, connected indoors, around a central atrium or a central staircase. To go out you have to retrace your steps through long sequences of galleries, or pass to and fro past the store, café, coatcheck. There are many layers of architecture between you and the outside, however many slot-like windows the architect has inserted to tell you where you are. There’s a relentlessness to the arrangement that says, You should see it all, rather than, as at LACMA, Why don’t you just pop in for a minute?

Indoors, and on the East Coast, I also like the renovated first floor of Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, set up by Joel Sanders Architect as a very suave lounge. Yale’s attendance will always be modest, and admission to the entirety of this museum is free, but surely, eventually, please be working on this, electronic ticketing systems will allow museums to install overhead tolling at the door. At the YUAG, under Kahn’s sublime tetrahedral ceiling, you can sit in low-rise modernist furniture, look out at the sculpture garden, read art books and magazines, and chill. It is a space with rich and unusual materials, a connection to the outdoors, art interest at a variety of scales and, most importantly, focus. It offers difference from the everyday not through the placement of a few pieces of trophy art, but by accommodating the state of mind one should be in for a museum.

City Gallery stairs
© Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA

"Can something that’s formal be fun?" That was a key question for Snøhetta as they designed their expansion, says Aaron Dorf, one of three project architects. That sense of fun comes out in the staircases that let you climb the cliff face of the expansion. When you are inside the galleries, your sense of the shape of the outside falls away. You are in museum-land, where the walls are white, the floors are blonde, and the artificial light falls with varying levels of intensity from the cove ceiling. (Cue museum director praising the Menil Collection.)

As Dorf explains, Snohetta didn’t put the stairs in an efficient stack, one on top of the other, but spread them out along their building’s long side, allowing views from one flight to the next, with pauses to look out the big windows rimmed in more of that maple when some FRP wrapping to the interior would have been a more powerful choice. The effect is of a mountain traverse, with rope lines marking the choicest route, and turnouts for vistas on the two exterior balconies. The windows and balconies remind you of the patchwork seen from Natoma Street, framing the city as another artwork. The idea is strong, but one can’t help feeling, as with the galleries, that Renzo Piano got to it first (this time at the new Whitney) and a bit better.

I preferred the galleries that stepped away from the beaten track. On the fourth floor, there’s an homage to Philip Johnson’s Rothko Chapel by way of an octagonal gallery hung with seven Agnes Martins. There one may sit on a circular bench and look into her pencil-lined deep space, allowing everything else to fall away. What if this were the kind of small, intense art experience a museum offered in its lobby? It seems a truer chip-off-the-block of museum-going than the stunt-ish Serra.

The octagonal gallery hung with Agnes Martins
Patricia Chang

In the design galleries, I loved the way Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design, decided to rework the de rigeur display of trophy chairs. In a medium-gray, cubic room, 15 superlative examples of chair theatrics, all made of a single material, are corralled in a knee-height acrylic pen. A visual key on the wall gives you the appropriate information, but the arrangement allows you to see the chairs as the sculptures they are (at least in a museum context) and in relation to each other, with the seat as the only constant. In the next room, a terrific set of futuristic architectural drawings and models, with a California slant, are similarly integrated by gray walls and floating acrylic cases. The combination of architecture, exhibition design, and objects made these into an intimate and thoughtful experience, where most of the education was quick and visual. Again, something a lobby could emulate.

Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace featuring Alexander Calder’s sculpture Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), formerly Man (1967) and the living wall, designed by Habitat Horticulture
© Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

The immense third-floor green wall, designed with consultants Habitat Horticulture and Hyphae Design Lab, is a rare break from the rather thin and monotonous interior palette of white and wood. Glimpsed from within the museum it glows, and you just want to work out which combination of stairs will take you to it. The wall has been seeded with over 19,000 plants, arranged to respond to the different light conditions, so the greens ebb and flow, creating another watery pattern. It’s a wonderful backdrop for the hard edges of a couple of Calders, instantly tricking the mind into thinking you are in a far larger, horizontal garden. Why couldn’t this have come down to the ground, covering part of those giant white walls with an artwork that lives and breathes, too?

In moments like these I’ve just listed, the expanded SFMOMA feels like the museum of its ambitions: a treasure house of experience as well as things. But these seem to come at the sides, or looping around, the main events, where Snøhetta’s architecture can feel thinned out and derivative. To refresh and integrate the Botta with anything new was a formidable task, and it felt to me like the architects didn’t have the energy, or perhaps their client didn’t have the vision, to carry it all the way through. The inconclusiveness of the lobbies is emblematic. If museums truly want their lobbies to be more than event spaces between rentals, they need to prod their architects to shape an experience that can only be had there. "Third spaces" are a dime a dozen now, and every large dot-com has bleacher seating. Offer an experience you can’t get at an airport, a coffee shop, a hotel: Offer stillness. Offer depth.

Video: San Francisco's MOMA opening


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