“San Francisco Museum of Modern Art”, The Australian, Mar 1995.

Ross Harley Santa Monica, 21 March 1995

San Francisco MOMA

Another impressive contribution to twentieth-century architecture was unveiled recently in California, with just one small hitch. No one could tell whether the complex is for shopping or for art.

San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art has unveiled its new headquarters in a spectacular 225,000-square-foot building located in the heart of the city’s burgeoning downtown district. The grand launch in mid January (60 years after the Museum originally opened) attracted huge crowds from around the world to see the latest of the new art meccas firsthand. Hardly disappointed by what they encountered, the insatiable art public continues to flock to the huge exhibition space, auditorium, cafe and bookstore, giving some cause to wonder whether there remains any difference between art consumerism.

Designed by the well-known Swiss architect Mario Botta (his only museum and first major US commission), the classically modern brick and granite museum nevertheless has critics divided over its cultural worth. As with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s early 1990′s design for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, unkind east coasters in particular are wondering whether it is anything more than a blatant attempt to buy a little high culture credibility. Isn’t it just a shopping mall gone all arty. Or vice versa, right?

Wrong. In fact, the new museum gives the New York art emporia more than a run for their money.

Of course people in the artworld — both sides of the US — remain a tad sceptical about the financial footing of contemporary art, after the excesses of the eighties and all. But that hasn’t stopped museums from becoming the most powerful, most highly visible public institutions of the present. (Hence the importance of Architecture.) Much to everybody’s surprise, the SFMOMA Board managed to raise over $90 million for their New Museum Campaign. Something of a national record, $65 million of that came from a small handful of Board Trustees and friends (while, most notably, corporate sponsorship from the likes of Ford and AT&T barely made the $1 million mark.)

Let’s not be too dramatic though. Fact is, many who feel they live in the heart of culture in Manhattan have barely noticed the new museum. Those who have, rather condescendingly suggest that perhaps the Art-Deco-looking complex might do better were it to look even more like a department store. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp jibed that the $62 million building “should delight those who lament the passing of the great shopping emporiums”, adding that he wished museum officials “would have the wit to inscribe the museum’s name outside in gold Lord & Taylorish script.” They haven’t.

Not to be put off by such remarks, local Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Allan Temko went on record in the San Francisco Focus. He called SFMOMA “one of the best museum buildings of our time.” Not only that, its “great upslanting skylight … is larger than the western rose window of Notre Dame in Paris”. Now that’s something NY MOMA could never claim.

Such facts appear to count a lot in the museum game. According to the press release at least, the new space is “the second largest single structure in the US devoted to modern art”, “doubling the museum’s gallery space” for the 10,000 people expected to visit the museum each day. Very impressive.

It all sounds over the top. That’s because it really is. The museum actually fulfils its promise to be the new symbolic monument to culture in the west. Until the new Getty Museum complex opens in Los Angeles that is.

Botta has gone so far as to liken his structure to a church, saying that “the museum’s role in today’s city is analogous to that of the cathedral of yesterday”. Consequently most visitors have the decidedly postmodern feeling that their gods are indeed everywhere apparent. Culture is religion, religion is shopping, shopping is culture, culture is…

All exaggeration aside, the Museum is indeed one of the finest I have ever seen. It effortlessly combines the seemingly contradictory principles of Commerce and Spirit under one roof. Without resorting to pastiche or architectural quotation, the building suggests to the visitor that they have entered an extraordinary space in which they might encounter the most challenging and sublime that our late- twentieth century commercial culture has to offer. The array of work on display for the opening exhibitions (from Jeff Koons to Matisse) only confirms this intuition.

Unlike a good many museums designed by name architects, Botta’s SFMOMA is an extraordinary space for exhibiting the art of this century. It does not suffer the fate of merely being an extraordinary non-utilitarian work of art.

It is difficult not to compare Botta’s spectacularly artful atrium to Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum masterwork in New York — the Guggenheim. Both buildings squeeze the visitor through tiny street entrances into enormous expanses of light and space. Botta’s atrium runs the building’s full five stories, tunnelling great shafts of light down its central turret. Likened by the architect to an Italian piazza, the atrium serves as a spectacular entrance to four floors of exhibition space. While critics may compare the black and grey striped granite floors and walls to department store perfume counters, it is the perfect entrance for an art museum. While Wright contrived to exhibit works around his spiralling foyer (giving curators headaches to this day), Botta chose to build his galleries off to three sides of the lobby.

This approach offers rewards at every turn. Generous rooms are linked by playful stairways. Intriguing vistas across the atrium into adjacent galleries are provided by unexpected cut-aways. Tiny slit windows offer tantalising glimpses of the city outside.

Light from the enormous central skylight plays sculptor to the building’s interior surfaces and volumes. The complex arrangement of diffusers and curved translucent paneling in the galleries (which took more than three years to develop) provides excellent lighting for the works of art. From the incredible 25 foot ceilings of the contemporary gallery on the fifth floor to the endless corridors of panels in the third floor galleries (which house the permanent collection), the visitor is rewarded continually with architecturally exciting spaces. Best of all, the work on display never plays second fiddle to the architect’s ego.

The fifth floor also sports a virtually transparent metal ramp that spans the thirty-eight foot diameter turret. Though this bridge provides no practical access that couldn’t have been given more easily from the circumference, it’s a spectacularly dramatic viewing platform. Here — seventy-five feet above the ground floor and sixty feet below the skylight — one feels the vertigo of culture first hand. It is also a great spot to appreciate the simplicity and elegance of Botta’s minimalist abstraction: the voluminous cylindrical lobby, the views up to the sky and out to surrounding buildings, the ziggurat-like turnings of the central staircase.

Looking from across the road in the newly opened Beuna Yerba Gardens, Botta’s controversial candy-striped stone work makes best sense. The two-toned granite and modest brick cladding fuse classical, modern, and postmodern styles together — especially with Fumihiko Maki’s recently completed Centre for the Arts complex in the foreground and Timothy Pflueger’s 1925 Pacific Bell classic skyscraper looming behind.

From this perspective, Botta’s three-tiered stepped back landmark looks anything but conservative. Critics might not agree why, but there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Botta’s museum has already become an icon for San Francisco’s cultural aspirations. Which is more than a shopping mall could ever aspire to, right?