SFMoMA between Mario Botta and Snøhetta

Fog isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you encounter the rippling white cliff face that now looms behind the museum’s original home…

Built in 1995, Botta’s stately museum squares up to Third Street with an imposing presence, standing as a “stepped brick ziggurat from which a bold zebra-striped cylinder” emerges, sliced at a sharp angle to form a striking cyclopean oculus. With a strong central axis of symmetry, the design sampled everything from Louis Kahn to Siena Cathedral, ushering gallery-goers in through a suitably momentous entrance sequence. At the bottom of the light-flooded cylindrical atrium, visitors are funnelled into an enclosed staircase of dark granite, rough and polished in alternating bands, a theatrical threshold that had the drama of ‘entering a pharaoh’s pyramid’.

Fast forward to 2016, the vast new extension by Norwegian architects Snøhetta almost triples the museum’s display area to 175,000 square feet – providing 40% more gallery space than even the Museum of Modern Art in New York – arranged as a stack of floors behind the existing building, wrapped in an amorphous shell that bulges out around its midriff, in order to fit more floor space on the relatively narrow lot. The new addition, clad in undulating panels of white fibre-reinforced polymer, which are intended to recall both fog and the rippling water in the bay. The building has an inescapable flimsiness, as if has been carved from polystyrene like the architectural models on display inside. The form is sliced flat where it meets the street, creating a shear surface “like a rock cracked open”, say the architects.

The two buildings cannot be more different, or better reflections of their respective eras, and the pair does not make a particularly happy marriage. Indeed, after visiting the conjoined complex, it makes you wonder why one was deferentially kept at the expense of the other while being considerably lobotomised in the process.

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