Museum’s come so far to be so-so

Times Staff Writer

The new Asian Art Museum, unveiled in a public ceremony last week, is a vexing work of architecture.

That the building is an improvement over its predecessor is beyond reasonable dispute. Built in 1966, the original museum was a banal addition to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. It had no architectural merit, and it could barely contain the museum’s vast collections, which include perhaps the best assortment of Chinese, Japanese and Korean art outside of Asia.

The museum’s new home, a renovated 1917 Beaux Arts landmark that once served as the city’s main public library, guarantees that the collections will have the kind of stature that they so richly deserve. And its 37,500 square feet of exhibition space is close to double the amount provided by the original museum.

What the project lacks, however, is imagination. Designed by the Italian architect Gae Aulenti, the renovation is a subdued take on an old historical model. There are elegant moments here, but there is little tension between new and old structures, no real sense of the building’s transformation. Instead, you are left craving something more -- a hint of glamour or a bold contemporary vision.


Aulenti made her name in the mid-1980s with her design for the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. There, she inserted a series of discreet partitions into the main hall of a former train station, preserving the beauty of its soaring glass-and-steel roof. She has since worked on several high-profile renovations, including the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy, a work of genuine beauty.

But the San Francisco project involved a number of particularly difficult challenges. The original building was essentially laid out in the shape of an E, with three small wings projecting out from behind its main facade. A grand stair swept up from the lobby to the large hall that once held the card catalogs. The two flanking wings were separated from this central space by enormous light wells.

As such, it was impossible to circulate among the various wings without continually returning to the lobby. Aulenti solved this problem by transforming both light wells into soaring, glass-enclosed atriums. The effect is a more unified experience, allowing visitors to move more freely through the building.

Where Aulenti ran into problems, however, is in the articulation of these new spaces. The main atrium, for example, is capped by a V-shaped glass roof, its weight supported by a single, massive steel beam. A row of thick columns frames a bookstore on one side of the space. On the other, a series of pillars marks the entry to several classrooms. A glass-enclosed elevator punctuates the end of the atrium. Beyond it, escalators lead up to the galleries.

The contrast between the stripped-down classicism of the cylindrical columns and the square pillars gives the space a surprising degree of visual richness. And there are echoes here of the work of Aldo Rossi, the late Italian architect who specialized in creating abstract forms that seemed haunted by a distant historical past.

But the refinement one would expect in the design of the atrium’s structural elements is missing. The roof lacks visual muscle. The escalator structure, which climbs up one side of the building’s exterior, is a banal version of the playful glass tubes that mark the facade of Paris’ famous Pompidou Center. Even worse, the steel is painted a hospital green, the atrium walls a sandy beige, giving the entire hall a somber, somewhat sickly feel.

Aulenti had slightly more success with the galleries. To make room for the necessary exhibition space, for example, the architect was forced to build an interstitial floor in what was once the library’s main reading room. As such, the room’s soaring, 36-foot height was cut in half.

Nonetheless, Aulenti was able to preserve the memory of the original room. The original wood-beam ceilings have been lovingly restored, and they now loom closer overhead. A narrow slot separates the new floor from the exterior walls, allowing light to spill into the galleries below and giving visitors a vague sense of the room’s original scale.


Perhaps more important, the flow of the galleries continually brings you back to the building’s grand Beaux Arts spaces, in particular the stair loggia. The effect is dramatic, and visitors get a momentary rest from viewing the art -- alleviating what curators call “museum fatigue.”

But even the design of the galleries could have been pushed further. The gallery partitions, which were created by George Sexton, slam into the old timber ceiling with an unexpected violence. The separation between the new floor plates and the old building, on the other hand, is so subtle that only a trained eye would catch it.

As is often the case, money may have been part of the problem. Of the $160.5 million spent on the project, a large portion went to restoring the building’s historical fabric and upgrading the structure to meet new seismic codes. That left little money for bold architectural moves.

Nonetheless, this is also about attitude. Over the last decade or so, many contemporary architects have created an architectural language that seeks to reveal the tensions hidden underneath the social fabric that binds us. In a historical context, that has often led to designs that seek to play up the clash between period styles and the values that shape them. Other architects have resisted this trend, opting for a more gentle, humanistic approach.


Aulenti’s approach, by comparison, seems to lack conviction. The tension between past and present is never explicit enough, nor is it delicately conceived. It is just there. The result is a competent building, but not a great one.