SFMOMA expansion plans now include demolishing Botta staircase


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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has released updated plans for an expansion by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta. What the new designs suggest, more than anything, is a museum in the round squeezed into a dense urban site.

But that intriguing notion will come at the expense of the three-story granite staircase inside the museum’s existing Mario Botta-designed building. It will be demolished to make way for an expanded atrium accessible from both the existing entrance, along 3rd Street, and a new one to the east.


The schematic design makes clear that Snøhetta is striving -- though without a whole lot of success -- to chip away at the bulk of the new wing, which will cover 235,000 square feet of space and rise directly behind, or east of, Botta’s 1995 building. Snøhetta has added windows and narrow terraces to the light-colored concrete addition, which was largely an opaque behemoth in earlier renderings. The architects also have devised a scored horizontal pattern for the wide eastern facade, hoping to break down its muscular scale at least to a degree. But the main goal -- the architects’ big idea -- is to make the museum accessible from virtually all sides. The design, on which Snøhetta is collaborating with the San Francisco firm EHDD, calls for a new 18-foot-wide pedestrian pathway along the museum’s eastern edge. It will also open up a direct pathway to the new Transbay Transit Center, under construction two blocks away. Visiting groups of schoolchildren will arrive through an entry on Minna Street, to the north.

The result of all these changes? A museum that will no longer have a single front door or a single main facade and where visitors, however they enter, won’t have a traditional sense of arrival until they make their way to the expanded atrium, which SFMOMA describes as “a central space that will serve as the public entry point to all galleries.”

My initial reaction is that the updated design remains far more promising in terms of urbanism than architecture. At street level the changes unveiled Wednesday will knit the complex more successfully into the surrounding city fabric. Generous use of glass will make the new wing largely open and transparent at pedestrian level, particularly as visitors round the corner from Howard onto the new walkway and toward an outdoor stair leading to the east-side entrance. A glass-wrapped ground-floor gallery will mark that corner; the museum announced Wednesday that Richard Serra’s 2006 sculpture ‘Sequence’ will be placed there for the opening of the new wing.

Having acquired the deep Fisher Collection two years ago, SFMOMA clearly feels it needs as much new space as it can afford to build. But the new wing still looks awkwardly oversized, thanks to the unusual shape of the site from which it rises; it would be far more coherent, with a better sense of proportion, at about three-fourths (or even two-thirds) the size. When the addition is complete, SFMOMA will have 130,000 square feet of gallery space -- more than the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The decision to remove the Botta stair, while it may make some practical sense in terms of simplifying circulation in the expanded complex, threatens to gut the interior coherence of Botta’s design, turning it into a kind of false front for a Snøhetta-designed museum inside.

SFMOMA also announced some new details about its capital campaign. It has upped its campaign goal to $555 million, from $480 million, and said it has raised $437 million so far.



First look at SFMOMA’s new wing

Critic’s Notebook: Museums hire architects but forsake past architecture

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Images: Renderings of the design for an expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Credit: SFMOMA / Snøhetta