Take a look inside Snøhettas new building for SFMOMA

In two weeks The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will reopen with a brand new building by Norwegian-American Architecture firm Snøhetta. Join us for a look inside.

Museums seem to be growing at a rapid pace around the world. This June, Tate Modern in London will open a new, ten storey extension which will allow the museum to welcome five million visitors a year. The popular Viking Ship Museum in Oslo is expanding in the years to come, as is ARoS in Denmark, which will open to new halls in 2018 with light installations by the American artist James Turrell. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Kunstmuseum Basel and the Zürich National Museum are among those who have added a considerable amount of square meters to their existing space. In San Francisco the city’s Musum of Modern Art, SFMOMA, has been closed since 2013 to prepare for the opening of a brand new building which will allow the museum to welcome more visitors and display it’s ever growing art collection. Norwegian-American Architect firm Snøhetta was chosen to ad new space to Mario Bottas striking postmodernist building from 1995.

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It’s hard not to notice Mario Bottas original musum building from 1995, built at a time when the area consisted mainly of run down houses and parking lots. Since then the neighbourhood has undergone a positive transformation. Photo: Henrik Kam/SFMOMA

– The first thing people asked us when we said we were going to double the area of ​​the old museum was: Yes, but where? says Simon Ewings, senior architect at Snøhetta, with a laugh.

– We simply had to construct the plot ourselves by removing the rear part of the existing museum and demolishing two old buildings on Howard Street. One was a fire station, and to be allowed to tear it down the museum first had to design and build a new one.

– You had to give the city a new fire station?

– Yes, and this is of course built by today’s standards. The old one was not. When that was done, we were able to clear the ground and go.

Early in the process Snøhetta met with Mario Botta in Italy to discuss how they would relate to the original building in a smart way.

– It has a very strong presence, which was quite right at that time, but the area has changed radically since then. We think of the new building as a dance partner for the old, where Bottas building is the heavy, masculine center, while the new building is light, feminine and open, says Ewings.

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The ground-floor gallery is free to the public, with large windows facing the street. Richard Serra’s steel sculpture Sequence is currently on display here. Photo: Henrik Kam/SFMOMA

SFMOMA wanted a building that better reflected the values they want to promote in the future. That is transparency, new ideas, education and making room for a wide variety of people. This openness is partly expressed through large, column-free spaces, windows where you can look outside and several new entrances to the museum. The new building doubles the gallery area, which was quite necessary when millionaires Donald and Doris Fischer chose to lend their art collection to the museum long-term. The couple founded the clothing chain Gap in the same city back in the 1960s and have used their wealth to build one of the world’s largest private art collections, including works by Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and Gerhard Richter.

– With so much art it’s not possible to see everything at once. You get hit with what we call gallery fatigue. For that reason is was important to create places where people can take a break, have a coffee, talk and clear their head to make room for new impressions, says Ewings.

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One of the most striking features of the new museum is a large, vertical garden next to Alexander Calders sculpture. The green wall represented a solution to a practical problem: In San Francisco you have to preserve the water during periods of heavy rain. The rain water is now used to keep 16.000 plants growing. Photo: Henrik Kvam/SFMOMA

Snøhetta also wanted to reduce the buildings energy consumption and make it a more environmentally friendly.

– But I’ll be the first to admit that an art museum is one of the hardest buildings to turn green, says Ewings.

– It contains artworks worth many millions, perhaps billions of dollars, with strict requirements when it comes to temperature, humidity and exposure to daylight. Just to control the indoor climate in a museum is incredibly difficult because you can have almost empty galleries one day and several thousand visitors the next.

The solution came in the form of advanced technology that can regulate both temperature and humidity on a day-to-day basis. In addition, the new SFMOMA is one of the first museums in California to only use LED lighting, which reduces the use of electricity. Much of the water in the building is also reused, some of it to water a large vertical garden consisting of 16,000 different plants from the region.

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– A museum should facilitate meetings between people and art, not just be a storage room for the artworks themselves. We found a great partner in SFMOMA and had incredibly fruitful discussions, says Simon Ewings of Snøhetta. Photo: Henrik Kvam/SFMOMA

For the facade Snøhetta opted for a material they have previously never used: Locally produced fiberglass panels. It solved several practical problems.

– Earthquakes are a major challenge in San Francisco and the solution is often to use a massive amount of steel to build a solid box. We want to create a house that was very light on top and well-founded in bottom, says Simon Ewings.

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All of the 700 fiberglass panels on SFMOMAs facade are unique. Photo: Henrik Kvam/SFMOMA

Simon Ewings compares the material to the shell of a kayak.

– It has the solidity that a building should have, but without the weight.

Snøhetta also wanted was to create a facade that would reflect San Franciscos somewhat unstable weather.

– In this city you can experience ten different types of weather in one day, from bright sunlight to heavy rain to fog. We wanted the facade to change as the sun and shade glides over it so that the weather contributes to the experience of the building.

SFMOMA reopens on May 14th.

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