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Museum Quality 

The new de Young Museum is an architectural marvel; its parking garage shows what's wrong with S.F. development policy

Wednesday, Apr 28 2004
While tromping through the dirt, brush, and scattered construction detritus along JFK Boulevard earlier this month, I looked up, became dizzy, and perceived beauty. Walls of an uncertain greenish, reddish brown curved 90 degrees into the sky, creating an Escher-like illusion of space turned inside itself. Dimpled, as they were, with a pattern resembling the mottled shadows of leaves on a sidewalk, the walls of the odd-shaped structure seemed to blend into the Golden Gate Park tree canopy, their unnatural shape notwithstanding.

Along with a dozen or so architecture buffs, I was on a guided tour of the aforementioned nine-story, modernist tower, which pokes through the Golden Gate Park forest as part of the new de Young Museum, to be completed in 2005, after structural details, including a copper skin, are added. The new museum, designed by the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, has been the subject of vilification since architectural renderings were released three years ago. Mostly low-slung, with a single, twisting tower jutting up on one end, it's been scorned variously as an aircraft carrier, a pizza box with the delivery tag sticking out of it, and a quesadilla adorned with a vertical tortilla chip. Detractors sued the city, ridiculed the architects at a public meeting, and otherwise raised in the public mind this question: What's a metal-clad high-rise doing in Greek-revival-'n'-ferns Golden Gate Park?

I arrived at my answer while gazing up from the tower's northeast base. Even in its half-finished state, the edifice promises to be at once a graceful part of its landscaped-forest surroundings, a spectacular artistic monument, and an inviting public space. The architects spent months studying and photographing the museum's leafy environs. They took photos of tree shadows and blurred the images to create a pattern of pixels, which were then transferred as baseball-sized dimples into 7,200 coffee-table-sized sheets of copper, which will form the entire museum's skin -- which will, then, artistically approximate a giant photograph of a dappled sidewalk.

Thanks to the gradual way in which copper oxidizes, the building will slowly turn color during the next decade, from new copper's brown sheen to a soft, Paris green. Once the structure's open to the public next year -- and many of the new museum's areas will be open to all comers free of charge -- I believe it will be the kind of landmark people travel far to see; it will receive acclaim similar to the Getty in L.A. and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. On paper, it's possible to view the new museum as lopsided. In real life, it's an exercise in artistic symmetry.

Yet thanks to the shortsighted arrogance of the museum's funders and planners, there's reason to lament the beautiful new de Young. The awful, traffic-creating, 800-space parking structure planned alongside the museum continues an unfortunate San Francisco tradition in which civic glory arrives along a condemnable route. Adding hundreds of parking spaces to an area already clogged with cars, in combination with a new facility that has the potential to attract millions of new visitors, is a recipe for drastically increasing the traffic on surface streets leading to the park. "You'll definitely notice it," is how one city planner last week described the increased traffic flows expected to be generated by the museum and its garage.

It's an ugly underbelly to a wonderful city amenity, which, I suppose, is in keeping with a local Baghdad/Bay tradition, in which evil and good are never far apart. Our great city was built by rail barons, placer miners, and other assorted thieves. Our economy is still fueled by their moral progeny: money launderers, usurious financial-service peddlers, and their corporate peers. Our water flows from a once-breathtaking mountain valley, our electricity, from a destructive monopoly. An ill-begotten toxic bay-fill called Treasure Island offers the best view of downtown; and the city's most pleasant walks are through groves of the rapacious weed known as eucalyptus, imported for a failed logging scheme, then allowed to kill much of the coastal Bay Area's wildlife.

I love the city the robber barons created; I'm glad to have a job in our still-breathing economy; I savor our water, read by electric light, stop off at Treasure Island now and again, and enjoy walks through the Mount Sutro eucalyptus as much as the next guy. But, given the chance, isn't it better to build civic monuments not tainted by unnecessary destruction?

I'd like to visit the beautiful museum going up in Golden Gate Park without having to dodge rivers of traffic along Fell and Fulton streets, swelled by an ill-conceived, massive parking garage. I'd like to see people visiting the de Young on a practical, relatively cheap light-rail line that would sprout from the N Judah at Ninth Avenue and veer four blocks north to the park -- a plan endorsed by area transit and urban planners, yet arrogantly rejected by automobile-minded art patrons. Such a line would connect Golden Gate Park with BART, Fisherman's Wharf, and every other transit-served point in the Bay Area. It's a plan that would give aesthetically beautiful urban symmetry to the new de Young, whose architects went to great lengths to make art appreciation an uplifting human experience.

Next month a Superior Court judge will decide whether the museum's plan to use parking fees to help pay for the garage's construction squares with language in a 1998 ballot measure in which voters approved a garage, based on the idea that it would be financed entirely through private donations. News accounts of the ongoing legal battle over the garage say none of the structure's 100 donors has so far pulled out in frustration. I urge the donors to reconsider and take their money elsewhere -- perhaps into the campaign for a light-rail line to the park. There's no glory in having one's name on a garage stall, particularly when the garage destroys the artistic integrity of a museum poised to become one of the best things about San Francisco.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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