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Critic’s Notebook: When it comes to architecture, museums forsake the past

Even with the economic recovery limping along, American museums keep planning, raising piles of money for and opening new wings. An architecture critic — at least one with a high tolerance for the work of Renzo Piano — could conceivably keep busy writing about these projects and nothing else.

There’s the Whitney Museum’s recent agreement to lease its 1966 Marcel Breuer-designed building to the Metropolitan Museum of Art while it erects a massive new home (designed by Piano, naturally) on the far west side of Manhattan. There is the curious decision by the Museum of Modern Art to purchase the American Folk Art Museum, a 2000 jewel box by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien that shares a stretch of 53rd Street with MoMA, without doing much to quell rumors that it plans to knock the building down.

Outside of New York, there is the ill-advised move by the Barnes Foundation from its quirky quarters in suburban Merion, Pa., to the center of Philadelphia. In Fort Worth, there is the Kimbell Art Museum’s decision to pair its original Louis Kahn masterpiece with a Piano addition. And let’s not overlook a recent West Coast hot streak by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, which is designing a museum for Eli Broad and a new home for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

All that to-ing and fro-ing, all that fundraising, politicking and Piano-ing, all those high-ceilinged rooms for all those Richard Serra sculptures and crumpled Cai Guo-Qiang automobiles, and I still haven’t mentioned the biggest museum-architecture news of the week: The unveiling Thursday of preliminary plans for a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Designed by the talented, busy Norwegian firm Snøhetta, which is also at work on the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum at ground zero in New York, the SFMOMA addition will slip a cruise-ship-size building — 335 feet long and nearly 200 feet tall — behind the museum’s existing home, which is the work of Swiss architect Mario Botta and opened in 1995.

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The proposal is a work in progress. (Snøhetta’s Craig Dykers called Thursday’s cocktail-hour press event “a preview of a preview.”) A full schematic design isn’t due until the fall, and so far we’ve seen very few details of how the galleries — or any of the interior spaces, really — will work.

But the public-relations campaign is well underway. SFMOMA and its director, Neal Benezra, are casting the block-long, broad-shouldered new wing as a quiet and retiring piece of architecture, one that is equally respectful toward the Botta building and the surrounding urban fabric. And the press in San Francisco, never an easy city in which to build innovative architecture, seems receptive. A San Francisco Chronicle piece on the addition carried this headline: “SFMOMA wing gently expands reach in early plans.”

The Snøhetta design has many things going for it, but a gently expanding reach is not one of them. The new wing is a chiseled behemoth, and though it does its best to hide, trim, shade and disguise its bulk, the result is somehow disingenuous, impressive and amusing all at once, like an iceberg trying to convince everybody that it is in fact an ice cube.

Part of the reason some have been tempted to see the Snøhetta design as deferential is that it very agreeably stays within its allotted footprint behind Botta’s building. Its posture, at the very least, appears polite. It tucks in its elbows and knees. This may be why two renderings released by SFMOMA showed it from above, a perspective that most museum visitors will never have access to: Because the design looks particularly well-behaved from that vertiginous angle.

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Along Howard Street, where the architects propose opening an 18-foot-wide pedestrian walkway to complement the existing main entrance on 3rd Street, the new wing promises to be marked by a sensibility at once wide open and urbane. The design calls for slicing open the addition on its upper floors to create a pair of sizable terraces.

Its roofline, moreover, is bowed (slightly) to protect views of Timothy Pflueger’s 1925 Pacific Telephone tower. And its formal language is straightforward: It isn’t billowing, curvy or exploding in a riot of sharp angles, as recent museum architecture by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry or Daniel Libeskind has been.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be mountainous, or imposing. Within its footprint, the design expands its mass about as far as it can go; above the Howard Street entrance the new wing will rise straight up without any setbacks, creating a sheer, cliff-like face.

SFMOMA, having acquired the deep collection of Gap founder Donald Fisher, who before his death in 2009 was planning his own Broad-style, Richard Gluckman-designed vanity museum in San Francisco’s Presidio, certainly could use more space. And in built form the Snøhetta design could be a muscular, flinty and subtly varied presence very much in the tradition of Breuer’s Whitney and Edward Larrabee Barnes’ Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. But a wallflower it is not.

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SFMOMA’s plans are emblematic of wider trends in the American museum world, a field that has grown increasingly impatient and covetous. Every museum wants precisely the sort of building, the kind of interior space, it doesn’t have. And the number of museums now abandoning or forsaking significant pieces of architecture is surely unprecedented.

The Whitney is giving up a building that is indisputably one of the four or five most important works of postwar architecture in New York. The Berkeley Art Museum is quitting its underrated Mario Ciampi home, from 1971. The Folk Art Museum, desperate for cash, is selling its Williams and Tsien. And MoMA, having bought that building, is allowing it to twist in the wind while it plows ahead with its own construction plans, for a mixed-use skyscraper (containing several floors of galleries) by Jean Nouvel.

And the cycle of obsolescence spins ever faster. The Whitney is jumping ship as its building turns 45. SFMOMA’s outmoded, undersized home is all of 16 years old. MoMA, apparently, heartily thanked Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi for his $425-million 2004 addition, put him in a car to the airport and immediately dialed Nouvel’s office in Paris.

This is the odd cultural moment we’re living in: Never have museums been so eager to hire talented architects and give them large-scale commissions with generous budgets. And never have museums been so dismissive of architecture’s civic or historic value.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com


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