Photo by Pei Ketron

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May 2, 2016

The New SFMOMA's Architecture & Design by the Numbers

SFMOMA’s stunning new building isn’t just an add-on to accommodate the museum’s growing collection, but a total makeover that joins its renovated Mario Botta-designed home with a gleaming white, 10-story addition. You only need marvel over the structure’s sculpturally distinctive eastern façade to know it’s a place devoted to culture and that something special is going on inside.

Designed by Craig Dykers of the Norwegian-American architecture firm Snøhetta—best known for the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in Manhattan and the ongoing overhaul of Times Square—the museum’s graceful, undulating tower wraps around the back of the much-loved original brick building.

Nearly 235,000 square feet of new space doubles the size of the museum to 460,000 square feet in total, triples the amount of gallery space and creates additional entrances. The high-profile build-out also includes some 45,000 square feet of free public-access space and creates new art-filled pedestrian routes in the neighborhood.

One of the biggest challenges to the architects was working within such a dense urban site. They hoped that by opening up the museum to its surroundings, the adjacent alleyways might also see an infusion of life. With new commercial galleries, parklets and eateries already flocking to the area, we say it’s a smashing success.

Here are just a few key building features to look for when you’re there:

Inspired by the rippling waters of the bay and the city’s ever-changing maritime climate, the building’s eastern façade is clad in some 700 fiberglass panels, each sculpted with a unique horizontal pattern and studded with silicate crystals that catch light and seem to shapeshift. Knowing that they were fabricated in the Bay Area using locally sourced material makes them all the more beautiful.

The atrium boasts a new grand staircase that opens up the soaring space and lets more natural light stream down from the oculus, now visible as a complete circle for the first time. The stair’s elegant, floating geometry echoes that of the Alexander Calder mobile hanging directly above it and makes for a dramatic entry to the second-floor ticketing hub. 

In the new ground-floor gallery overlooking Richard Serra’s monumental Sequence sculpture off Howard Street, inviting Roman-style steps in warm maple wood offer one of the hood’s liveliest new public gathering spots and prime people watching.

Six new outdoor terraces throughout the building provide al fresco settings for sculpture along with dramatic views of the city—perfect for stretching the eyes a bit before diving back into the galleries.

On the third-floor terrace, behold the largest living wall in the Bay Area. It features some 16,000 plants, including 24 native species (including actual Yerba Buena— the namesake of the gardens), and is fed by a recycled water system.


If you’re an architecture buff, don’t miss these other cultural landmarks built by star architects in recent years.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s bold design for the newly relocated Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive merges a 1930s Art Deco-style industrial building with a biomorphic addition featuring a dramatic steel “spine.”

Daniel Liebeskind’s edgy “cube” extension to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s historic building, added in 2005, marked the great master’s first commissioned project in North America.

Herzog & de Meuron‘s copper-clad behemoth housing the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is a show-stopper. The view from its 144-foot tower offers the best look-out over the park and is worth the visit alone.

Renzo Piano noted that the roof was the defining idea behind his design for the California Academy of Sciences; his goal was to make it look like a piece of Golden Gate Park flying. Abundant natural light and a commitment to sustainability make the Academy the world's largest LEED Double Platinum building in the world. 

Thom Mayne’s striking Federal Building, with its slender form and airy, perforated metal skin, is a sly take on notions of transparency in an era when other government buildings seem more like armored compounds.

And, of course, there are classics by Julia Morgan (of Hearst Castle fame) to poke inside and Victorian homes galore. Another way to go deep into San Francisco’s architectural scene is by joining a free walking tour by San Francisco City Guides or hitting up the Architecture and the City Festival held annually each September.

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