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postmodern in san francisco: the de young museum

the de Young Museum

Since its opening the new De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park has been attracting a lot of attention mainly because of its unique architecture. The edifice is clad in copper with holes cut into it, meant to imitate light passing through trees. At first it is difficult to know what to think of the building, but after walking around it, the viewer is struck by arresting vistas of San Francisco. What is particularly interesting is that the exterior of the structure is alive, as it will weather and age with time, forming an incredible patina, probably pretty quickly too given the weather in SF. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in a few years’ time, as the copper skin is already oxidizing towards a dark verdigris. As for the collections inside the museum, the eclectic mix of art housed at De Young fosters connectivity through diversity. In a culturally rich city, where people are not easily impressed, De Young carves a distinctive niche with an innovative approach, namely showcasing art in an extraordinarily aesthetic Post-Modern environment.

After the June 2nd 1998 vote whereby the proposal to rebuild De Young was defeated by San Franciscans, a bold and aggressive fundraiser managed to raise $190 million in private funds to push the project forward. Though the ambitious undertaking was riddled with controversy every step of the way, the museum was successfully reinvented, thanks to patrons’ steely resolve and an unrelenting perseverance. Today, the imposing structure not only resonates with the tectonic topography of the area, but also sheds light on the unique politics of the city.

the de Young's Copper Skin

Ultimately, persuading the private sector to bankroll the project proved to be much less of a challenge than finding the right architectural firm to come up with a dazzling design. Finally, in January 1999 the conceptual blueprint of Herzog & de Meuron won over the selection committee; however, the public was not initially impressed by the Swiss firm's twisting tower idea. Emotionally-charged critics likened the soaring construction to many things, including "a huge shed," an "aircraft carrier" and a "Howard Johnson's of the future." Eventually, the original plan prevailed and the team proceeded to source the building’s metal skin.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s idea, inspired by a series of photographs Herzog took in Golden Gate Park, was to mimic dappled sunlight filtering trough the trees on copper sheets. But achieving this kind of an effect on such a large scale had not been attempted before. The solution to the predicament came from a Kansas City firm specializing in architectural panels. In the end, each of the 7,602 panels making up the skin were individually cut, punched and embossed to realize the desired effect of being one with nature.

The Viewing GalleryThe De Young building is mainly horizontal, consisting of two stories, with an additional third level tucked away underground. The De Young blends traditional and modern influences with a long curvilinear outline balanced on the one end with a coiling tower on the other end. The 144 feet vertical component, a twisting trapezoidal rise morphing into varied silhouettes depending on the viewer's perspective, houses the educational programs of the museum. Also, located atop the construct is a viewing gallery, affording visitors a panoramic view of San Francisco most people could not have known to exist. From there one can see downtown skyscrapers, the Marin headlands and the Pacific Ocean. The entrance, designed by Ruth Asawa, is reminiscent of a miniature dreamscape, featuring a constellation of delicate and seemingly weightless wire sculptures suspended in midair. The scintillating play of light and shadow amongst the various elements in the ascending form confirm that the museum is indeed conceived to trigger a sensory rollercoaster ride.


The CourtyardThe galleries laid out in a parallel configuration are demarcated by irregularly shaped and beautifully landscaped courtyards designed by Walter Hood. This interesting approach incorporates nature into the artwork, while bringing the art out to nature. Several tall windows shed sunlight into galleries and allow park goers to sneak a peak into the interior. It is voyeurism of the most intellectual kind; forcing the viewer into an interactive encounter with the art and scenery. Thus, De Young stands apart from the customary conception of a museum as an "art-filled box."


The StaircaseWalking through the museum, each visitor charts an individual voyage, as there is no predetermined route to follow. The layout of the museum, underscored by the pouring of the landscape in and out of the galleries, fosters a nonhierarchical viewing of the collections. One can walk through the art exhibits and gardens, weaving in and out of a complex tapestry of cement, metal, art, nature, open air, and even water. The Oceanic gallery, stretching over 9,500 square feet of space, paved with syncopated stones quarried in Italy, is a marvel to behold. The arcade topped with a shallow tent-like ceiling is a striking reminder of the city's beautiful waterfront. The Appleton Greenmoore stone surrounding the building features a continuous crack from the edge of the Music Concourse roadway to the main entrance door as homage to the SF fault line. Goldworthy’s creation not only serves as a reminder of the Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged the original De Young, but also fractures into stone boulder benches. While sitting on this most unusual resting spot, nestled in the bosom of Mother Nature, one can enjoy the massive Gerhard Richter mural, easily distinguishable by its deliberately blurred effect.

De Young’s meticulously designed floor plans allow the work to shine in the best light. The architecture is tailored to complement the essence of what is on display. The American paintings, for example, are showcased in rectangular rooms with walls painted in different shades of rose, lilac, ecru and green. The Oceanic collections, on the other hand, are placed in dramatically-lit loci in dark enclosures accented with wood floors, ceilings and display cases. Then again, the Saxe collection of contemporary arts is housed underneath a blown-glass rain-shower piece suspended from the ceiling. In summary, at De Young, art is complemented and amplified by its surroundings.

In terms of its exploration of symbolic connections and the history of form De Young is a Post-Modern work in the built environment of the Bay Area. According to art guru Amy Dempsey the infamously contentious term "Post-Modern" "was originally applied to architecture in the mid-1970s to describe buildings that abandoned clean, rational, minimalist forms in favor of ambiguous, contradictory structures enlivened by playful references to historical styles, borrowings from other cultures and the use of startlingly bold colors." In light of this definition, one can see that the local museum in Golden Gate Park is a montage of diverse design influences. The assortment of materials, styles, structures and environments, characteristic of Post-Modernism, renders De Young an eclectic creation, which cannot be defined by a single school. A rectangular building, cloaked under an ornate copper skin, melded with a spiraling tower, set in a carefully landscaped park that occasionally spills into the display areas certainly defies a clear-cut classification. True to the movement's mantra, "Less is a bore" here one can identify a colorful liberty standing in stark juxtaposition to uniformity. Ultimately, this extraneous variety achieves rich cohesion through calculated miscellany.

Ruth Asawa sculpturePost-Modernism is a denunciation of absolute truths, infallible identities and grand narratives. Though the movement was initially conceived as a reaction to modernism, it soon declared independence from its predecessor. The term, coined by Jean-Francis Lyotard, originally meant to refer to a high-paced cultural environment defined by constant flux, has come to be used in a broader pejorative sense to describe attitudes, culture, art and even philosophical theories. As a cultural movement Post-Modernism was heavily influenced by consumerism, globalization, fragmentation of authority and the commoditization of knowledge. However as an artistic movement it simply hoped to overthrow the universals or the fundamentals of art. Adherents thought that this revolution could be achieved through the rejection of high and low art forms. Therefore, the Post-Modern style is characterized by eclecticism, fragmentation, deconstructivism, digression, irony and the return of ornament and historical reference. The overall cohesion of varied and often contradicting elements is utterly irrelevant, as meaning can be unearthed as soon as we "stop making sense" -- as Post-Modern icon David Byrne, and his band Talking heads so aptly put it.

The twisting tower, which has been the source of heated controversy, is perhaps the best example of contemporary local art fostering discord, awareness, and social discourse. After all, Post-Modernism is notorious for using outrageous and anti-functional creations packed with visual zing to make an impact. However, this irreverent attitude is not a mere manifestation of anarchy. It is simply a celebration of egalitarian pluralism. The aim of 'impertinence' -- as French thinker Jean Baudrillard put it -- is "an ecstasy of communication."

The Sculpture GardenIt appears that those instrumental in the rebuilding of De Young wanted to challenge our perception of reality and truth. Using motifs or images from the past, such as the earthquake, these artists appropriated history into a new context. Consequently, the museum turned out to be a complex expression of what it is like to live in the twenty-first century. Today, just like our culture and society, our art should have a heterogeneous identity. Previously marginalized forms of expression cannot be kept at the sidelines forever. De Young is a testament that Post-Modernity is not preoccupied with moral and aesthetic utopianism. Varied, unsettling and inexplicable art fosters an ethos of diversity. Therefore, both the Chicano Visions exhibit and the work of John Bankston can coexist under one roof, emblematic of the irresistible harmony of clashes.

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