The Beaux-Arts Architecture of the Asian Art Museum
A visit to San Francisco’s Civic Center is a must for any architecture enthusiast. Grand buildings vividly evoke the city’s history while buzzing with the excitement of downtown life. The Asian Art Museum, in the heart of Civic Center, is truly a living monument to the city’s past.
The building opened in 1917 as San Francisco’s Main Library, designed by prominent local architect George Kelham in keeping with the principles of beaux-arts architecture, a classic approach that mixes Greek, Roman, Renaissance and Baroque styles. Buildings of this type were made of stone and masonry, with trimmings of garlands, shields, shells and floral motifs.
The regal interior and exterior of the building were inspired by the City Beautiful movement, a philosophy of architecture and urban planning intended to introduce beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. The idea was to locate important governmental functions, as well as arts, educational and cultural institutions, in impressive public buildings around a plaza to instill civic pride.
In 1988, after the Main Library was slated to move to a new facility, the museum, having outgrown its Golden Gate Park location, was given the go-ahead to convert the building into a state-of-the-art home.
Renowned Italian architect Gae Aulenti, famous for her transformation of a Paris train station into the Musée d’Orsay, was chosen to reimagine the building as a museum. She resolved to make it lighter, brighter and more modern, while maintaining its original heart. Large glass panels were installed to let sunlight stream in, the former reading rooms were divided in half to create an additional floor above, and a traditional Japanese teahouse built by Kyoto craftsmen was imported. The building also went through a significant seismic retrofit, ensuring even a major earthquake would cause only negligible damage.
When the museum reopened in the Civic Center building in 2003, it occupied 163,000 square feet, more than double the size of its former location. At the time, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote, “There may be no better place in North America to reach for an overview of the arts of the East.”
Pay a visit to the museum today to see not only its renowned collection but also the historic building that’s home to the impressive art.