San Francisco Awaits New De Young Museum San Francisco is known more for its natural beauty and Victorian charm than for its contemporary architecture. But this fall the city is taking a big chance on the new de Young Museum, a 300,000 square foot facility sits smack in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Cy Musiker reports.
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San Francisco Awaits New De Young Museum

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San Francisco Awaits New De Young Museum

San Francisco Awaits New De Young Museum

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Even as we watch the Gulf Coast struggle to recover from a recent disaster, we have one more sign of a city's recovery from a disaster more than a decade ago. An earthquake devastated San Francisco in 1989 and it damaged a beloved museum, the de Young, a decades-old structure in the middle of Golden Gate Park. The old building was too compromised to save, so the city hired an acclaimed team of architects to come up with a new design. Residents are greeting that new museum building with mixed emotions. Cy Musiker reports from member station KQED in San Francisco.

CY MUSIKER reporting:

The new de Young is huge, wrapped in a shawl of copper and topped by a tower that from some angles seems bent like an arthritic thumb.

Ms. MONICA NOLAN (San Francisco Resident): I see a long, low-lying building covered in some sort of mesh. I kind of like it. It's hard to tell.

MUSIKER: Monica Nolan is like many San Franciscans, on the fence but curious about the new design. There are plenty others, however, who already hate it. Perry Matlock was born and raised a few blocks from Golden Gate Park.

Mr. PERRY MATLOCK (San Francisco Resident): It actually looks more like a fortress than an art museum.

MUSIKER: Matlock and many others are still mourning the loss of the old de Young, a Spanish colonial building painted flamingo pink.

Dede Wilsey is president of the board of San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums.

Ms. DEDE WILSEY (President of the Board, San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums): They were nostalgic about the museum because so many people came here with their children, grandchildren and etc., to Golden Gate Park. They thought they liked this building architecturally. If you really looked at it, it was quite hideous.

MUSIKER: And after 1989, it was also dangerous, badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake. So Wilsey led a campaign raising so far nearly $190 million for the project. She had to. Voters here twice rejected bond measures to pay for a replacement. She also worked to remake the de Young's collections. `The old museum,' Wilsey says, `was a kind of Victorian attic filled with thousands of formal gloves, wedding dresses, bug collections, even a two-headed snake in a jar.

(Soundbite of work in progress)

Ms. WILSEY: Well, we don't have an attic anymore. We've cleaned the closets.

MUSIKER: Much of their contents were sold to buy new pieces for the new de Young, including a trio of paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, a Robert Motherwell and a Mark Rothko, plus a number of special commissions.

(Soundbite of work in progress)

Mr. ANDY GOLDSWORTHY (Sculptor): A beauty.

MUSIKER: Earlier this summer, sculptor Andy Goldsworthy was deliberately cracking large paving stones for the museum's entry courtyard. He's created a network of jagged fissures in the pavement, like the lines on a seismograph.

Mr. GOLDSWORTHY: This building has been rebuilt because earthquakes rendered the original building unsafe. The way this building has been made has been determined largely by trying to resist the effects of earthquakes, and it's a reminder of that in a way.

(Soundbite of work in progress)

MUSIKER: Goldsworthy found inspiration in the museum's geological history. The architects drew ideas from the natural history of its setting: the trees, gardens, even the fog that envelops Golden Gate Park.

Ms. JAYNE BARLOW (Architect): Basically, we see the museum as an extension of a walk you might take through the park.

MUSIKER: Architect Jayne Barlow has managed the de Young project since workers broke ground four years ago. She says maintaining the park connection meant breaking some traditions. Windows, for example, are often shunned in museums; the sunlight might damage the art. Here, they're set in deep bays with protective glass. In every gallery, visitors can look out and orient themselves to the surrounding park.

(Soundbite of background talking)

Unidentified Woman: So right to the end of...

MUSIKER: The outside literally comes inside. In an upstairs gallery devoted to the masques, textiles and sculpture of the Pacific Islands, the walls and floor are built of eucalyptus wood similar to the Golden Gate's trees.

Ms. BARLOW: So then we're inside a space that's covered in this beautiful wood, but then we're actually looking out at the natural trees themselves which is, I think, really rather magical.

MUSIKER: Barlow then walks down a set of stairs flanked on one side by glass walls overlooking an interior garden open to the sky filled with giant ferns blowing in the breeze.

Ms. BARLOW: And as we're walking down the stairs, the landscape's following us. So we feel like we're almost coming down into the building with the landscape, and now we're actually in the lower level. We're in the basement, but there's so much light and green from these courtyards that you really don't feel like you're in a basement at all.

MUSIKER: Even the building's facade is an attempt to integrate it with its setting. Barlow works for the Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. They've sheathed the building in a copper mesh. Designers programmed computers to punch holes in the copper to match patterns of shade under nearby trees. And de Meuron notes that copper will turn green with age to blend in with its surroundings.

Mr. PIERRE de MEURON (Architect): The building is alive and its different by sunshine and it's different by rain and by fog.

MUSIKER: De Meuron and Herzog have designed buildings together since they first worked in kindergarten and worked with Legos. Their firm won the coveted Pritzker prize for architecture last year, but the design for the de Young has drawn strong reactions. The tower, the metal sheathing and the building's scale led one neighborhood opponent to compare it to an aircraft carrier. De Meuron shrugs off that critique.

Mr. de MEURON: I don't think it's the target of everyone to please everyone. We want to do a piece with integrity, but you cannot make, in our times where there are so many different ways of perceiving the world, to have just one view of the world and to--one view of an object.

Mr. JOHN KING (Architecture Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): This is a building working with copper in some kind of abstract biomorphic shape. That's a little different.

MUSIKER: John King is architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says this city is no Chicago, a place known for great buildings. But King thinks this year San Francisco may be getting the one building in the US that will most change how people think about architecture.

Mr. KING: It's challenging to people in a whole variety of ways. It could be that it's a respectable failure or it could be it's a really provocative nuanced success. Whatever. But, I mean, these are not buildings that are meant to be turned into little two-inch-high metal buildings you can buy at a gift shop or put in a snow globe and you shake it and it's like, `Oh, look at'--you know, this is not a T-shirt image of a building.

(Soundbite of work in progress)

MUSIKER: Recently, Dede Wilsey watched the installation of a giant mural commissioned from Gerhard Richter. It depicts the atomic structure of strontium, massive gray blobs that seem to pulse and move. Wilsey says the piece shows how the resurrected de Young is redefining itself.

Ms. WILSEY: Which is to have the finest that we can. We're never going to be the Met. We're not going to be the National Gallery. But we will be the finest museum, certainly, on this coast.

MUSIKER: Maybe. The public will get to decide in October when the new de Young Museum opens to visitors. For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of work in progress)

INSKEEP: I'm looking right now at a photo of that museum under a cloudy sky. It's at our Web site at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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