Towering triumph

With the stunning de Young Museum, San Francisco gains a brilliant work of modern architecture ― and some welcome attention.

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The building is not only site-specific, but also custom-designed for its holdings. With treasures veering from a Paul Revere tankard and sculpture by Isamu Noguchi to paintings by Rothko and Motherwell and Teotihuacán murals from 600 a.d., it can be a challenge to avoid a hodgepodge effect.

White, airy spaces crowned with skylights surround the modern art downstairs, while the museum's objects from Oceania are arrayed in semidarkness in rooms with wood floors. The layout also encourages making connections between disparate pieces. "It can be hard to relate a sculpture from New Guinea to a Copley from Boston," allows Parker. "The way the rooms flow also lets you spot the similarities, and you realize that many themes are universal. We want the museum experience to be about more than reading labels!"

Wilsey was intimately involved in nearly every aspect of the project, from testing the grates with her Manolo Blahnik heels to changing the stone specified for the floors when it felt too rough underfoot. A collector of impressionist art who considers Léger and Picasso "very modern," she nonetheless gifted the museum Gerhard Richter's immense mural of manipulated photographs of the atomic structure of strontium titanate; the mural faces into Wilsey Court, the museum's light-filled interior piazza. "We met in Cologne and got along famously―I told Gerhard the piece reminded me of my big pearls!" Seattle has its Rem Koolhaas library, Los Angeles has its Richard Meier-designed Getty Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry: These buildings are tourist attractions and civic icons all at once. Now San Francisco has an icon of its own. In its new home, the de Young feels more alive than ever. Perhaps the greatest testament to the architects and curators is that the moment you leave here, you're already imagining a return visit. There's not much more a museum can ask.

The de Young Museum (closed Mon; $10; 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.; www.deyoungmuseum.org or 415/863-3330) is in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

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