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Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego expansion is a 'mistake,' critics say in an open letter

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego expansion is a 'mistake,' critics say in an open letter
A view of the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego as designed by the firm of Venturi Scott Brown in the '90s. (Phillipp Scholz Rittermann)

Just two months before the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is scheduled to begin demolition on a portion of its La Jolla building to make way for an expansion and renovation, more than seven dozen critics, architects and architectural historians have signed an open letter describing some of the proposed changes as “a tremendous mistake.”

The $75-million expansion, designed by New York-based Selldorf Architects, is set to add 30,000 square feet of gallery space to the museum, which has lacked a dedicated area in which to show its permanent collection. As part of the plan, the museum’s entrance will be moved south along the museum’s Prospect Street facade.

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The entryway, completed in 1996, was designed in the Postmodern style by the influential architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. (He is a Pritzker Prize-winner, and many believe she should have received the honor as well.) The design from their Philadelphia firm Venturi Scott Brown includes an exterior colonnade that leads into Axline Court, a neon-accented atrium topped by a star-shaped clerestory window. The atrium serves as the museum’s principal point of access. Under the renovation plan, the colonnade and the entrance will be removed and the atrium will be repurposed as a public gathering space.

Axline Court, the Venturi Scott Brown-designed atrium at MCASD.
Axline Court, the Venturi Scott Brown-designed atrium at MCASD. (Phillipp Scholz Rittermann)

“We recognize the museum’s need to expand, but we ask that it do so without irreparably damaging a cultural landmark and in the process severely weakening La Jolla’s beloved village center,” reads the letter, which was circulated late last month by Izzy Kornblatt, a graduate student in architecture at Harvard University. It has been signed by a design world who’s who, including Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critics Paul Goldberger and Inga Saffron, former Yale University architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern, and Brett Steele, dean of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture.

In an opinion piece written for the design website Dezeen, Los Angeles curator and critic Mimi Zeiger, who this year served as co-curator for the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, noted that Venturi Scott Brown’s design falls into that period in which a design can look dated but is not yet considered historic.

“While the La Jolla design may no longer suit present sensibilities,” she writes, “it represents a key part of [Venturi Scott Brown’s] oeuvre.”

Annabelle Selldorf, founder of Selldorf Architects, said she is surprised by the blowback.

“The project has been public for four years,” she said by phone from New York. “I’ve talked about it in practically every lecture. It’s a very surprising thing.”

The decision to relocate the entrance and remove the colonnade comes from the desire to create a more visible entrance, one that isn’t obscured by a colonnade.

“Had the entrance worked, I would have kept it there,” said Selldorf, who is known for sensitive renovations of historic museum buildings, such as the Neue Galerie in New York and the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts. “I don’t do anything unless I think there is a need for it. It’s not to fulfill my ego that we proposed these changes.”

A rendering for a new wing and entrance at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego by Selldorf Architects.
A rendering for a new wing and entrance at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego by Selldorf Architects. (Selldorf Architects)

Moreover, she noted that the San Diego museum isn’t a single building but a number of buildings that have been added to and reconfigured over time.

At the heart of the complex is a 1915 residence that early California Modernist Irving Gill designed for philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, and that later served as the museum’s first home in 1941. Over time, additions by San Diego-based Architects Mosher Drew and, later, Venturi Scott Brown, have added gallery space, an auditorium and the exuberant atrium.

A view of the various MCASD building projects over time.
A view of the various MCASD building projects over time. (Selldorf Architects)

Scott Brown, 87, told The Times that the removal of the colonnade and the closing of the entrance she and her husband designed in the ’90s “breaks our heart. It’s like losing a baby.”

Above all, she said that Selldorf’s proposed redesign doesn’t take into account her firm’s urban planning goals — a point echoed in the petition. “VSB’s design,” the letter notes, “arises from careful study and understanding of La Jolla’s urban form. Its street frontage, museum store, and cafe extend the rhythm of Prospect Street’s lively storefronts.”

The museum is at the end of a commercial stretch on Prospect Street in La Jolla, at a point where the commercial thoroughfare becomes residential.

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“I’m a city planner and an architect,” said Scott Brown. “I’ve done years and years of small Main Street renewals. We knew how to make the relationship between Prospect Street and the museum, so that shoppers on Prospect could become visitors to the museum.”

This, she said, was achieved by creating a sequence of experiences that would engage the average pedestrian, such as a sidewalk café.

“There is a café, there is a patio, Dad can be there with the kids,” she stated. “It’s a nice place to be. It makes for a good entrance.”

Selldorf, however, noted that the entrance she has designed does engage the town: It faces the commercial stretch on nearby Silverado Street, which features a church, offices and restaurants. (It also faces another Gill-designed building, the La Jolla Woman’s Club, completed in 1914.)

Museum director Kathryn Kanjo said that the new plan is an attempt to make a more “overt” entrance for the museum.

“This is the sixth renovation,” she said. “We wanted to bring clarity and logic.”

And she said it’s not a decision that the museum has taken lightly.

“This was a very methodical selection process,” she said. “It was a thoughtful process that included site visits, reviewing many proposals, reviewing the work of four architects.”

“The board remains deeply impressed by Annabelle’s design and enthused about moving forward.”

A part of the colonnade designed by Venturi Scott Brown has already been removed. Construction is slated to begin in October.

An overhead rendering of the proposed MCASD renovation as seen from the east.
An overhead rendering of the proposed MCASD renovation as seen from the east. (Selldorf Architects)

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