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November 16, 2005

De Young Museum Impressions

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The newest big city art museum is the totally rebuilt de Young in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The previous de Young was damaged in the 1989 earthquake to the point that it was closed in 2000 in fear that it might not survive another quake. It was demolished two years later to make way for a new building.

Here is a picture of the old museum building.

Old building.jpg Old de Young building.

The new building was designed by Basel, Switzerland architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, winners of the Pritzker Prize. It opened 15 October and The Fiancée and I inspected it 13 November.

David Littlejohn reviewed the museum in the 3 November Wall Street Journal. His opening description is hard for me to improve upon:

The new de Young Museum is basically a blank brownish box -- the color changes in different light, and may one day turn green -- 420 feet long, 240 feet wide and 40 feet high. A 144-foot tower -- a box atop a warped pyramid -- rises at the east end. A punctured space-frame canopy flies out 50 feet beyond the building at the west. Both tower and canopy are wrapped in copper screens: the undulating, slit-open roof is also covered in copper. Except from a few dramatic angles and in just the right light, the exterior of the new $200 million de Young is uninviting and not easy to love.

This was from the critic who enthused over Rem Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library (that I loathe). He goes on to say

Many of the interior public spaces, on the other hand, are both inspired and inspiring. The visitor is energized by the very quality of thinking and intensity of imagination that went into them.

As for the art inside, Littlejohn informs us that

After the 1972 shotgun wedding of the de Young to the city's other public art museum -- the California Palace of the Legion of Honor -- all the de Young's European works were transferred to the Legion. The private San Francisco Museum of Art (now of "Modern" Art) laid claim to international works from Matisse on. In 1973, the private Asian Art Museum was founded.

This left the de Young, even before its enforced relocation, with the problem of displaying in some coherent fashion "everything left over."

Having let Littlejohn set the scene, let's take a look.

Aerial view.jpg Aerial view of museum under construction.

This is an aerial view taken while under construction. Note the tapered "fingers" of the structure. The interiors of these are of course tapered as well. Open spaces between the fingers contain rocks and bits of foliage visible via windows of various sizes and shapes, the views including the nearby exterior wall of the neighboring "finger" as backdrop.

Exterior blank wall.jpg Approach view.

Approaching the museum's entrance the visitor sees mostly a blank copper wall relieved by dimpled texturing. Note the ribbon of windows (for the lobby area and gift shop top level), not much to get a handle on the human-related scale of things.

Here's a closer look at the exterior cladding.

Facade showing texture.jpg Exterior copper wall, texture.
Andy Goldworthy entrance sculpture.jpg Goldsworthy entrance courtyard art.

You have to pass under part of the building and then traverse a courtyard on the way to the entrance. The courtyard contains "land art" or perhaps "sculpture" by Andy Goldsworthy. One feature of this is a crack that begins well outside the building and continues across the paving and some of the stone blocks seen in the picture.

Tower showing screen better.jpg Museum tower.

This is the tower. Below the top floor are offices, conference rooms, and so forth. The top floor is the observation deck and has vertically-set windows instead of the slanted screening below. Copper sheeting is perforated by holes about an inch in diameter, making a sort of screen that might or might not provide relief whenever the sun penetrates the local fog.

Inside observation with people.jpg Observation floor.

The perforated sheeting makes the observation floor less enjoyable than it might otherwise have been. See how the lower edge of the screen is slightly less than six feet above the floor (compare to the height of the people). I'm a little under six feet tall and, if I stood tip-toe, the screen aligned with the horizon. This made for an unnatural view of things -- the sky effectively obscured by the screen. Someone over six feet tall might find the horizon hidden. And higher terrain such as Twin Peaks was screened off for all viewers taller than children.

Another annoying interior detail: the otherwise nice, green-tiled men's restrooms had all paper towel dispensers positioned at child or wheelchair level.

eucalyptus bench.jpg Bench made from Eucalyptus.

The interior featured rich-looking wood on floors, stairs and some furnishings. Pictured is a gallery bench made of Eucalyptus.

Main stairway.jpg Main stairway area.

The largest interior space surrounds the main stairway from the main (ground-level) floor to the upper gallery floor (temporary exhibit space and the main part of the gift shop are in a below-ground floor). The stairs, in plan-view, are tapered like the building "fingers." The room otherwise is not monumental, despite its size. This is because the walls are white, undecorated surfaces aside from the wall opposite the stairs which has a huge, blurred, op-art "painting" (actually a mural of manipulated photos of strontium titanate's atomic structure by Gerhard Richter) that's hard to look at, forcing viewers such as me to avert our eyes. Another bland part is the main-floor ticketing area, also awash in light paint.

The "Art in America to the 20th Century" galleries, where I spent most of my time, are conventional. Littlejohn was smitten by the galleries showing art from Africa, New Guinea and Oceania. But I'm not much interested in art from those places and had to get to San Jose to catch a plane, so I missed them and have nothing to report.

My conclusions, given the parts of the museum I saw, are as follows: There were a number of interesting touches such as combining perforations with dimples on some exterior surfaces. The few windows often provided interesting snatches of views. Interior woodwork, where present, was nicely done; unfortunately, it wasn't present in as many places as it might have been. The tower is a joke containing either poorly-judged features or outright mistakes. The non-tower exterior is mostly forbiddingly sterile and lacks human scale. Interior spaces that might have been grand are not. Totaling the pluses and minuses, my provisional verdict is that the museum is simply an okay example of contemporary public architecture which often isn't very okay.



posted by Donald at November 16, 2005


I enjoyed my visit to the de Young museum. The tower had a great view of the Golden Gate Park, bay, hills and neighborhood. (I am short and could see fine.) The flooring was done in really beautiful wood. The copper panels were certainly unusual and changed constantly as the light changed. Eating in the cafe was well-organized, delicious, priced right, and artfully served. I just loved the Egyptian art. I used the earphones and felt like I was IN Egypt. I guess I'm just easily pleased.

Posted by: Nancy Deturk on November 17, 2005 12:12 AM

The eucalpycus bench is, if nothing else, a marvel of woodworking. The stuff is real good at splitting and rotting. It's said to make a eucalyptus toothpick you start with a eucalyptus tree.

Wonder how many weeks it'll last before rot catches up?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 17, 2005 2:13 AM

Is it supposed to look like an aircraft carrier? Because it does.

The most irritating thing about pomo architecture - besides its ugliness and banality - is that jokiness has become obligatory. Even when the person doing it has no sense of humor. Even when he's an out and out retard! Regardless, you've gotta cram the goddamn thing with haha funnies.

Pomo architects think they're just the life of the party, don't they. They're like the loud fat guy with the lampshade on his head, only gayer.

I blame Philip Johnson.

Posted by: Brian on November 17, 2005 2:23 PM

Now compare that fearful bench with Calatrava-designed gift shop millwork for his museum in Milwaukee.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 17, 2005 3:16 PM

BTW, fellow building junkies, if you want an architecture primer, I've been reading a very good one - The ABC of Architecture, by James O'Gorman. It's built around the three qualities that Vitruvius said a building must have: utility, strength, and beauty. If you want to know what trabeated means or what a merlon is, or why arches work the way they do, check it out. It's here.

Posted by: Brian on November 17, 2005 8:12 PM

Apologies for my type; the correct link is

Truly wonderful design, structurally, functionally and material-wise.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 17, 2005 8:50 PM

Thanks for the tour and the reactions -- very thorough and informative. One question? That observation floor gives me the willies. The screen at roughly eye level ... The windows going clear to the floor ... Gamesplaying, and vertiginious gamesplaying, or so it seems to me, sorta like the clear staircases and bridges in those chic Apple Stores. Makes my stomach do unpleasant flipflops, although I do register that I'm supposed to be feeling thrilled and turned-on instead. What did you find it like to be on that floor, and take in that view? Did you feel ... I dunno, secure?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2005 2:18 AM

Alan -- Well, it didn't get reduced to toothpick status, but the original caption for the picture said it was eucalyptus. Wonder what that bench cost to make.

Brian -- Now that you mention it, it really does resemble a flat-top in that aerial view.

Michael -- Heights and apparant lack of safety devices such as railings often make me nervous too. I wasn't nervous in the observation floor, however. I'll guess that it was because we weren't terribly high off the ground (compared to most view attractions such as the Empire State Building). Also, much of the view was straight out the window or even up to nearby hills -- we weren't really looking DOWN.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 18, 2005 8:42 AM

Are those wonderful benches really made of eucaplytus? I don't know much about wood but they are beautiful.

I did find some amazing pictures of the De Young interior. Not sure if they are photos or some other medium but they are lovely.

Posted by: Ellen C. on November 21, 2005 1:16 PM

I have to say that I love this museum and I can't understand any one that thinks it is just "ok". I live in San Francisco and was brought up in an artist home. When one goes to the museum, you have to leave all your problems at home and just look at all the art with an open mind. If you cant't see this place for what it is, then just go back where you came from, yeah, the valley.

Posted by: Edson on November 22, 2005 2:15 AM

I just spent a week in San Francisco, and had the pleasure of visiting the de Young while I was there.

It was the most fantastic structure I've ever been in. The copper cladding was a stroke of genius, with over 1,500,000 dimples layed out from photos of the trees in the park and turned into computer assited design.

The tower was quirky, and clean with a magnificent view, while the wood floors (Brush Box Eucalyptus?)and ceilings were perfection. If I could reproduce those bences for myself, I would start tomorrow.

I loved the slate gardens, and as a matter of fact, I loved all the gardens.

Now if the shows inside would catch up to the World Class Architecture, it would be perfect.

Rusty Borders,
Big Island, Hawaii

Posted by: Rusty Borders on November 30, 2005 1:41 AM

I meant Exhibits, not shows.

Posted by: Rusty Borders on November 30, 2005 2:32 AM

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