03/15/2007
          de Young Museum, San Francisco Herzog and de Meuron
          Review and Photos by Chris Warren

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        • As I begin the first DBA review of an architectural work, I'd like to stress that this is a first hand account of the building by a working architect, so please bear with me as I leave the interpretive guesswork to the critics. I do hope, however, to be no less critical.

          If you haven't already been, I highly recommend a visit to San Francisco, and to the de Young Museum in particular. It's a ruggedly sensual building that has been placed in Golden Gate Park and will soon be joined across the way by a Renzo Piano creation.

          As one approaches the building, there is a sense of awe inspired by the gleaming two story plinth, the bulk of the building, that couples with a twisting tower emerging from the rear. The building's current pre-patina color is that of a dulling copper, speckled with the highlights and shadows of the sun playing against its highly articulated skin. And let's face it, if you know the building, if you know H&D's work, you know that it's all about the skin. Luckily, beauty runs deep in the de Young.

          For such a grand museum, the entry sequence leaves something to be desired. But this, along with a few other missteps, does not detract from the overall experience. Each floor of the plinth is basically a large rectangular slab interrupted by slits of light/landscape. The modern interiors of the museum interact nicely with the natural implementations, though once inside the majority of your focus will likely remain, as did mine, on the interior. The transition between individual galleries works well. There seems to be a smoother transition between them, more of a flow, that is hard to come by in many other museums. In general, circulation here is a pleasure as well. You're either led down along a high glass wall facing a courtyard filled with natural greenery, or you ascend a stair leaving a main gathering area. Either option is more accommodating than the usual grand stair within a grand hall arrangement.

          The entry floor is the best from which to enjoy the intermingling of the spaces, though the second floor does have a wonderful gallery devoted to sub-Saharan African art. It houses one of the best, and most interesting, collections on the subject matter that I've seen. There is also a small sitting area at the west end that allows you to view the sculpture garden from just below the massive canopy. It would have been a much more effective space, however, had they not separated this area from the adjoining gallery with a full height wall.

          But, back to the architecture... the skin and the details... that's what this building is all about. The de Young is one of the most complete buildings I've had the pleasure of walking through. Every detail is thought out and executed with the utmost skill. The builders here deserve a big pat on the back as the surroundings are seemingly immaculate. Wood meets plaster at corners without a crack, without a gap. The metal skin hovers an eighth of an inch above swinging doors with no foreseeable problems. The skin on the tower curves up effortlessly, virtually perfect. Hardwood meets reveal, skin accommodates vent, and the roof... the roof is simply fantastic. I can't wait to see what this building looks like ten years down the road when the perforations and the impressions in the skin patina unevenly and the building actually takes on a life, a history, of its own. To quote a colleague of mine, "Should any architects be allowed to have this much fun". Enough said.

          So, do I have any gripes? Indeed I do. Sadly, even though landscape is brought into the spaces effectively, I always felt removed from nature, like I could have been a block from Union Square. Sure, the courtyards are a great addition, but the largest one succeeded more in feeling like an aquarium than it did in making me feel that the park was encroaching upon the museum. Even the grounds surrounding the project were highly prescribed as everything near the de Young was razed and filled in with grass and benches. You're in the park, but you're cordoned off from it at the same time. I can only imagine how sensational the experience would have been if the park actually ran through the building. Granted, it's one problem among a plethora of successes, but to this designer it's a big one.

          In conclusion, I still enjoyed this building immensely. The de Young is a great addition to a very liberal city that is finally realizing its ability to modify it's conservative appearance.

      Discuss
        03.15.07 If you make it to the museum, be sure to pick up a copy of the book describing the project's evolution. It's a nice addition to any library. / Chris
        03.16.07 Good thoughts on a great building. I do have to say that the entry courtyard is one of my favorite spaces... close to the copper with a pristine curtain wall in front of you, while weaving between the stone sculpture. / DanO
        03.16.07 Great image of the roofscape. It looks like the kind of thing you get to do in school, but so little of in practice(or perhaps that's just me...) / ksc
        03.21.07 it's difficult to evaluate landscape designs even one year after completion. for more images see http://www.wjhooddesign.com/deyoung.html / ae
        03.21.07 That's a very good point. I actually believe the landscape design is successful on its own. The design of the building, however, led me to believe that the park was meant to run through the building seamlessly, which it does not. / Chris
        11.13.07 "The building's current pre-patina color is that of a dulling copper" What is not widely known is that the copper HD used will NEVER patina in the way that most expect. It's not going to turn green and will basically remain the same. Sorry. / IbbyDibby
        06.24.08 The new museum is a hulking stain in a beautiful park. It does not respond to its context, thus renders itself irrelevent. The building will not be loved and will torn down in 50 years. / skinisn'teverything
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