COMMENTARY : Putting Up a Grand Facade : San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art is opening a $9.25-million expansion and renovation that adds style and function. But the most telling message may lie behind that pretty new front.

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

If they build it, will you come? That is the unnerving question that looms large today, as the Museum of Contemporary Art here opens a $9.25-million renovation and expansion of its small seaside building in La Jolla, which has been closed for construction since 1994.

Ten years ago, the museum hired the celebrated Philadelphia architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates to create a much-needed overhaul. That a full decade has passed between Venturi's hiring and today's public debut--considerably scaled back from the original expansion plan and delayed several years--suggests both the herculean difficulty of getting the project completed and the high stakes now riding on its success.

In fact, a visit to the new edifice shows that the museum has taken a huge gamble. It has ended up with the only exemplary architecture built in downtown La Jolla since the great Irving Gill erected the landmark Scripps House 80 years ago. Art, however, has been relegated to the margins--which makes all the blood, sweat, tears and money required of the project seem fantastically misdirected.

Not one square foot of new gallery space dedicated solely to art has been added to the small museum, despite the multimillion-dollar expansion cost. City planners and other officials opposed Venturi's original master plan because it meant building four new exhibition galleries in an undeveloped garden at the rear of the museum site, overlooking the ocean. The museum responded with the stunning decision to proceed with a partial renovation instead. The galleries were sacrificed.

Now, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have given San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art a kind of magnificent false front. From Prospect Street, their functionally skillful facade is imposing, playful and inviting. Inside, next to nothing has been done for public interaction with art.

The museum, founded in 1941 as the La Jolla Art Center, was originally the house of newspaper heiress and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. And what a house it was.

Architect Irving Gill (1870-1936) had come to Southern California in 1893 after training with the brilliant founder of the Chicago School of architecture, Henry Louis Sullivan. For Scripps he designed a house astonishingly modern for its day. On a bluff overlooking the Pacific and with spectacular views of the dramatic curve northward along the region's beautiful coastline, he transformed the simple, formal clarity of Mission-style architecture into a modern idiom.

From Sullivan, Gill had learned to conceive of a building as a formal unity--a premise that would be fundamental to modern buildings for decades to come. The Scripps House was a rectangular, two-story box pierced by unadorned windows with simple fenestration. At the front door, a Mediterranean porch punctured by graceful arches was flanked by vine-covered walkways--or pergolas--whose columns were in a plain Doric style. Old photographs show a stunning home of crystalline coherence overlooking the placid sea.

The Scripps House was built in 1916. It functioned as part of an ensemble of Gill-designed buildings, which still stand today. Directly across the street is his great Woman's Club (1912-14), closest to the residence in design quality; to the south are the Recreation Center (1914-16) and the Bishop's School (1910).

According to the museum, a 1957 poll in the magazine Architectural Record ranked the Scripps House as the ninth-most-important building designed in the United States in the previous 100 years. But architectural stature didn't prevent its ruination in coming decades.

Additions, renovations and "modernizations" by the 1960s conspired to nearly obliterate Gill's building. Gone were the porch and pergolas. In their place a spindly covered walk in a banal International Style visually linked the house to a handsome auditorium built next door. Adaptation of the museum's interior to display art meant covering windows and reconfiguring rooms, while an awkward expansion to the south further altered Gill's design. In essence the Scripps House was gone.

Now, it's back. Or more specifically, a remarkable image of it has returned.

High on Venturi's list of priorities was acknowledgment of Gill's masterpiece. He and Scott Brown began by restoring the facade's original features, unsealing windows and rebuilding the porch and pergolas. Wisely, they didn't stop there. Gill's architectural vocabulary also provided a critical context for their expansion.

Venturi has designed other museums, including the excitingly eccentric Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery and the less successful Seattle Art Museum. He understands that an art museum functions as a public symbol. Its public character differs from the private, domestic nature of a house.

In adding a new 1,450-square-foot cafe and an enlarged 1,600-square-foot bookstore to the San Diego museum, and in relocating its auditorium box office, the architects chose to put them out front, right on Prospect Street, flanking and slightly in front of the Scripps House. The addition's design seems to have been cued by the arched windows and gridded fenestration on the Woman's Club across the street, enlarged to a more civic scale. For the first time, the museum boasts a formally unified facade, which gracefully curves along a principal public promenade.

Venturi has also employed a familiar language of commercial design: Blunt neon wall and window signs identify the cafe, bookstore and box office. A curved wall that steps back near the box office wittily nods to Venturi's own London design for the Sainsbury, as does a cascading grand staircase in the rear garden.

Perhaps the cleverest transformation of Gill's private design vocabulary into Venturi's civic one is the addition of a second covered walkway. Meant to signal the main entrance, Venturi's pergola replicates Gill's sleek Doric columns and wooden lattice--except Venturi's are huge. The slender proportions of the originals on the Scripps House have been aggrandized in the new ones by a fat, oversize, almost cartoonish scale. These big Doric columns at the entrance slyly recall the 19th century classical origins of American art museums.

The Pop quality of Venturi's "Toon Town pergola" also emphasizes the setback of the original house from the new facade. A visually permeable membrane is created. The design feels layered all across the facade--a visually rich metaphor for the 80-year history of the building site with its multiple architectural layers.

Inside the museum, everything changes. The new entrance lobby comes as a startling surprise after the wry yet dignified serenity of the exterior. Architecturally exciting, it also poses certain difficulties.

The lobby is big--4,500 square feet. A gray-and-white terrazzo floor is patterned in a torrent of giant Dalmatian spots, whose flow playfully leads you into the space. Overhead, the room explodes into a tall lantern; this skylight is carved out in the shape of an asymmetrical, seven-pointed star, which fills the room with natural light.

An organizational key to the building's master plan, the lobby provides access to every area--bookstore, auditorium, galleries, below-ground education center, exit--which radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. The points of the lantern's star work as subliminal pointers, gently directing the flow of traffic in the expansive space. It's a clever solution to a daunting design problem.

Yet it creates problems too. The lobby is also meant to accommodate some art, but it's inhospitable to that purpose. Painted baffles in the lantern are edged in white neon, while a forest of 14 supporting columns breaks up the room. Most sculpture would be gobbled up here, and only very particular works of art can survive on surrounding walls.

However, the lobby does seem like a great space for a party. As with the grand entrance hall of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, social gatherings were clearly a priority in its design. The big difference between San Francisco and San Diego, though, is that up north they also built an art museum out back, with exceptionally handsome gallery spaces for the display of art. Down south they didn't.

No space solely for art was added in the expansion of the museum, whose few existing galleries are small and cramped. Lock, stock and barrel, the entire La Jolla building is just over 57,000 square feet. Only 10,500 of them are dedicated to galleries. Even if you count the lobby, that's a pretty bad ratio.

As evidenced by its inaugural installation of about 70 works from the permanent collection, the museum has some extraordinary objects among the 3,000 in its collection. In addition to the best Ellsworth Kelly painting west of Manhattan and a fine group of Pop and Minimalist art, it boasts a strong core of California painting and sculpture, including important recent acquisitions of work by Joe Goode, Kim MacConnel and Alexis Smith.

It's true that the museum has a satellite space in downtown San Diego, with about 6,000 square feet of galleries. Still, La Jolla is the main event. It's next to impossible to imagine substantive, simultaneous presentations of both the permanent collection and temporary shows being mounted there.

Public amenities for eating, shopping, partying and ticket buying aren't all that's gone into the expansion. Proper storage vaults, art-handling areas, a research library, offices and meeting rooms may not sound glamorous, and most are never seen by the public. But they are essential to a serious institution, and the museum happily now has them in a way it never did before.

The sloping garden in the rear, where some outdoor art can be shown, has also been nicely refurbished. For the first time, the museum has a real presence on the beach.

What it still doesn't have, though, is the main public amenity for looking at art. Venturi has made some minor adjustments to existing galleries, mostly by adding or relocating ocean-view windows. But having jettisoned the original aim of more than doubling the limited exhibition space, the entire scheme suffered.

Two factors seem to have conspired to delay and skew the expansion project: sluggish philanthropy, which has long plagued the arts in San Diego; and political inertia in a conservative enclave, which finally made Venturi's original master plan impossible to build. Hence the museum's big gamble--you get the queasy feeling that Venturi's "magnificent false front" was built in the earnest hope that maybe, someday, with luck and pluck, when the life of art is finally regarded as essential to civilized life in San Diego, the master plan might be revived.

Odd way to build an art museum. But as a public symbol, the new Museum of Contemporary Art says a lot about our cultural life in the 1990s.

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Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. (619) 454-3541.

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