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Petition to save Venturi Scott Brown-designed museum in San Diego picks up steam

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The proposed expansion plans to eliminate the colonnade courtyard currently fronting the museum

The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in La Jolla, California, as seen in 2012.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in La Jolla, California, as seen in 2012.

As the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, California, faces renovations that would involve the demolition of distinct facade elements, a new petition is making the rounds in architecture circles to preserve the facility’s postmodern addition designed by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. The renovations and petition highlight the challenges of historic preservation and contemporary adaptation, an ongoing debate in architecture.

Plans drawn up by Selldorf Architects call for the removal of the Venturi Scott Brown-designed colonnade courtyard anchoring the museum’s current entrance sequence, as well as the addition of a new two-floor volume to the south that would create a new entry while introducing more gallery space. One of the two pergolas that fronted the museum has already been relocated to the La Jolla Historical Society where it will become part of a new pocket park.

Rendering of the proposed expansion with a new entrance farther south of the Scripps House.
Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Signatories of the petition include noted architects Robert A.M. Stern, Toshiko Mori, landscape designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks, as well as more than 50 other leaders and students in the field.

“We ask that [the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego] reconsider the value of its existing building and come up with a plan for expansion that is sensitive and respectful to the village of La Jolla,” the petition reads, suggesting that the expansion build off the existing structure as opposed to removing parts outright and “harming the carefully planned existing circulation.”

Museum goers get a look at the new Venturi Scott Brown-designed designed lobby of the museum at the reopening in March 1996.
AP Photo/Denis Poroy

The museum was established in 1941, initially occupying the Irving Gill-designed modernist Scripps House built in 1915. San Diego firm Architects Mosher Drew added formal galleries and an auditorium in 1950 and 1960, respectively. And in 1996, Venturi Scott Brown and Associates designed an expansion that brought 30,000 square feet to the space, doubling exhibition space to 10,000 square feet and adding a cafe, restaurant, and gift shop, along with a redesign of the outdoor garden.

The museum cites a critical lack of space to display permanent and temporary collections as the reason for the $55 million expansion, which would double the building size from 55,000 square feet to 110,000 square feet and quadruple exhibition space to 40,000 square feet.

Rendering of the proposed expansion showing the new volume that would significantly increase exhibition space.
Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Key to the pushback is the disruption of a carefully considered experience of the current entrance sequence. The petition calls it a “well-loved urban space” that “invites [visitors] to rest for a moment, enjoy Gill’s architecture, have a coffee, and then enter the museum.” Meanwhile, the museum issued a statement defending the planned changes, saying guests were “consistently unable to locate the entrance” with the columned courtyard, even after installing new exterior and interior signage.

“With the growth of the campus shifting substantially to the south, Selldorf’s relocation of the Museum’s entry brings balance to the building overall and aligns the central experience of the museum with the intersection of Silverado and Prospect, orienting the entry toward the grid of the village streets,” the museum stated. “Having relocated the Museum entrance to the central facade and eliminated the exterior pergola, Selldorf provides a direct view to the Gill building, returning prominence to the original structure.”

An overview of various extensions to the Scripps House so far and proposed changes in the coming renovation.
Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

The Museum points out that the colonnade will be relocated so the public can enjoy it, but it will be in an entirely different environment, free of the context that informed its intended design and experience: It was part of Venturi Scott Brown’s deliberate move to update the museum while keeping with the Gill building’s original relationship with the street and passersby.

“In designing our building, we carefully analyzed and reacted to a pattern of activities on Prospect Street,” Brown said in a statement. “But now the delicate connections that we created are to be severed, equally threatening the museum and the village. Why not go on from what we so lovingly provided?”

The La Jolla facility has been closed since January 2017 in preparation for the renovations, and, assuming the project moves forward, work is expected to be completed in 2020.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that facade elements of the building designed by Venturi Scott Brown are slated for removal, not the majority of the structure.