October 14, 2005

San Francisco buzzes over new museum

By Michael Kahn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco may finally have
built its own masterpiece of modern architecture -- a towering
$200 million cooper-clad museum near the Golden Gate bridge.

That would mark a big development in a city known for hilly
Victorian neighborhoods and historic cable cars and where
residents have long focused on preservation rather than
embracing the kind of modern architecture symbolized by the new
de Young museum, its supporters say.

So far, the de Young, which opens on Saturday, has struck
the chord its backers had sought with critics hailing it as a
"museum for the 21st century" and a "notch below perfection.

Sitting in Golden Gate Park, the three-level museum
features a gently twisting tower that rises above the main
building. The renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de
Meuron sought to make the museum unique to San Francisco and
its famously fickle weather by designing a structure that
incorporates, rather than dominates, the park's constantly
shifting natural surroundings, said Deborah Frieden, the
museum's project director.

"Unlike cities like Paris and New York, San Francisco has
not paid attention enough to the great architectural
accomplishments of its time," Frieden said. "This is the first
great statement."

The building's copper skin mimics filtered light through a
canopy of trees to create an abstract pattern that will turn to
green over time due to exposure to the sun, rain and fog. From
afar, the building seems to fit snugly into the surrounding

Inside, visitors flow through different wings that bend and
come together to give the museum an organic feel that is
reinforced with plenty of natural and artificial light.

"The architects wanted the building to have certain
qualities of the natural landscape that are constantly
changing," Frieden said. "In different lights, for example, the
skin has different qualities. It changes with the sunlight. It
changes with the fog."

Turning the de Young into a cultural cornerstone for San
Francisco has not been easy. The original de Young, which was
built in the park for the California Midwinter International
Exposition in 1894, was closed about five years after the city
said the slapped-on braces strengthening it after the 1989 Loma
Prieta earthquake were insufficient.

A cash-strapped City Hall had no money to repair the
original and voters twice rejected bond proposals to pay for a
new one, putting at risk the museum's future. Finally,
supporters raised about $200 million on their own and the
original de Young was demolished to make way for the new one.

Not everyone welcomed the new design. Some critics thought
it was too tall. Others worried the nearly 300,000 square-foot
building would dominate the landscape and upset the
tranquillity of Golden Gate Park. Some simply thought it was
too weird.

"The de Young is for better or worse a watershed in terms
of San Francisco and the Bay Area being confronted with
contemporary architecture," said John King, an architecture
critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

"This is a building that is very much in the vanguard of
how some of the world's most creative and innovative architects
are exploring the shape and form of a building and the
materials that are used," he said.

Frieden said excitement surrounding the museum is spurring
many collectors to donate art to the de Young, which houses
American, Pacific Islander and African art.