Wilsey Court
Joe Fletcher

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


As you approach the museum on an autumn day, it does not sparkle from afar like a foil-wrapped piece of Frank Gehry eye candy. Variously smooth, embossed, dimpled, and perforated, its copper skin mimics light dappling through trees. As the tower emerges from foliage and the building comes into view, the calm mass appears rooted to the landscape: It might have been here for a month or a century.

The thousand-plus acres that make up San Francisco's Golden Gate Park include a Victorian greenhouse, a Dutch windmill, a Japanese tea garden, and a bison paddock. What the park did not have was any groundbreaking modern architecture―until last month, with the opening of the new de Young Museum, designed by renowned architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. 

Now, San Francisco is hoping that the museum will be what the Getty Center was for Los Angeles: a piece of architecture appealing enough to entice visitors and powerful enough to show the entire world that its city is a cultural force to be reckoned with.

"This wasn't about my personal taste," says Dede Wilsey, president of the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "I might not hire them to design my house, but this is a museum for the 21st century."

Wilsey, formidable socialite and philanthropist, is as responsible as anyone for what San Francisco has achieved. The story began in 1989, when the original museum fell victim to the Loma Prieta earthquake. After two failed bond issues, Wilsey took matters into her own hands, eventually raising $188 million in private funds―and exerting a strong influence over the museum's next incarnation. With private backing rather than public funding, the firm Herzog & de Meuron (of Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and London's Tate Modern fame) was able to work free from the "design by committee" constraints that typically result in bland structures that anger (and excite) no one. 

The result is a work of site-specific art. "Tradition and nature had to be foremost. The white box would not be the solution," said Jacques Herzog, quoted by Diana Ketcham in her new book, The de Young in the 21st Century. The building's long, curved roofline is balanced on one side by a tall, twisting tower, with an observation deck floating above the city like a treehouse. In keeping with the park setting, the main entrance is understated rather than grandly formal. Following a meandering fissure chiseled into Yorkshire stone by Andy Goldsworthy, you're led by what first appears to be a random crack into a soaring courtyard. Huge hewn boulders offer a kind of prehistoric seating, a reflection upon temporality, upheaval―and the role of earthquakes in prompting great new works of architecture.

Once inside, you don't turn your back on the park. Designer and University of California, Berkeley, professor 33914 Hood created glass-enclosed gardens that slice into the building. And throughout the museum's three interwoven wings, windows and glassed-in bridges look out to the landscape. "We intentionally created these bottleneck areas that force people to relate to the outside and to look into the glassed-in gardens," explains project architect Ascan Mergenthaler.

 "I was unprepared for the impact of these long, glancing views," says Harry S. Parker III, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "I looked up from Wilsey Court through a vertical window and caught a glimpse of an early American chair, which seemed to be floating. Even being so familiar with the art, it's changing all my perceptions." 

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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