Creating an Iconic SFMOMA Expansion: More Than the Sum of Its Parts

by Dana Goldberg
- Apr 28 2016 - 5 min read
sfmoma expansion, designed by Snøhetta, as seen from Yerba Buena Gardens
The new SFMOMA, as seen from Yerba Buena Gardens, combines the circa 1995 Mario Botta–designed building and the new Snøhetta expansion. Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, and Matthew Barney have all found a new home. Tucked into a slender slice of San Francisco real estate, the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) rises like a miniature Matterhorn—one that carefully incorporates the Mario Botta–designed building that it has called home since 1995.

Based in New York and Oslo, and now San Francisco, architecture firm Snøhetta has pulled off something amazing—creating an exciting new museum that merges two aesthetics and two structures. The 10-story SFMOMA expansion seamlessly integrates an additional 235,000 square feet into the museum, nearly doubling its former size.

Beyond Limitations. The new building is an object lesson in working with constraints: a preexisting building and a highly circumscribed footprint for its new expansion. Jon McNeal, one of the architects who worked on the project, explains how these constraints affected Snøhetta’s approach in bringing the project to fruition.

“It changes things fundamentally,” he says. “People recognize the Botta building; they identify it with the museum. And it’s a fairly constrained physical site—it’s not a large sandbox we’re playing in here.”

sfmoma expansion
Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA. Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

Snøhetta’s charge was to envision a new SFMOMA that felt as integrated as possible with the existing museum.

“We didn’t have to go through a lot of funny floor-height transitions since the galleries at Botta were all very nicely done—that made our work much easier,” McNeal says. “We didn’t have to introduce ramps or stairs to try and negotiate an older design issue that was no longer relevant. The challenge we had instead was repurposing some of the old building. We’re now expanding gallery spaces through areas that weren’t meant to be gallery spaces.”

In that regard, the structural gymnastics the firm had to execute were substantial. “We had to take floors that were previously supported from below and hang them from above to reduce the amount of beam depth at new connecting galleries, to make sure that the ceiling could be raised as much as possible to really maximize the light and the view,” McNeal says.

Two Structures Unite. The result of such unusual structural approaches (and the fact that the Botta building gave Snøhetta a solid foundation to expand upon) is a seamless experience—there is no obvious visual shift as visitors move between the two buildings. From the outside, it looks like two buildings. But inside, it feels like one.

sfmoma expansion fiber-reinforced polymer
Detail of the fiber-reinforced polymer that clads the Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA. Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

It’s a textbook example of how creative constraints or parameters can foster amazing work. “Certain things are [a] given that you don’t have to worry about or revisit,” McNeal says. “It streamlines a lot of the design processes, as opposed to working without any limits, which is often where design time can be lost. It’s very easy to spin out trying different options when there are no constraints.”

As far as the aesthetics of the expansion in relation to the Botta building, the intent was to build a conversation between these two iconic structures. That meant incorporating new views and new pedestrian approaches from neighboring streets.

“We wanted to make the open spaces on the ground floor as inviting as possible, with as much daylight and view access as they could have,” McNeal says. This is where the new building’s distinctive curved silhouette comes in. The SFMOMA expansion also incorporates two new access points—entrances on Minna Street and Howard Street.

Wrap It Up (in FRP). The façade is made of FRP (fiber-reinforced polymer), a lightweight composite material that holds up well to the elements and was sourced by Kreysler & Associates, a company based outside of Napa, California. It’s extremely light for its strength and for its size. The new SFMOMA is the first building to be clad in FRP at this scale.

sfmoma expansion Sol LeWitt’s massive Loopy Doopy
Staircase overlooking the second floor at the new SFMOMA, with Sol LeWitt’s massive Loopy Doopy in the upper left-hand corner. Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

Consistency of color was paramount. “It was a concern because they’re making these panels one at a time, and we wanted them to look as consistent as possible,” McNeal says. “All of the sand used in the entire façade came from Monterey County, extracted all at once, mixed together and stored in-house. They nailed it.”

The geometry of the new façade is curved in two directions, overlaid with what McNeal calls the “ripple geometry” of the FRP, which looks like wavelets of freshly blown snow. Yet somehow the opacity of the addition, with its lack of windows (artwork on display generally doesn’t get along well with direct sunlight) doesn’t register as heavy.

Model It, and They Will Come. Physical model making is a big part of Snøhetta’s design process, and the development of the new SFMOMA was no exception. “Computer model simulation is important, but from a visceral standpoint, people respond more to physical models than anything else,” McNeal says. “It’s very easy to walk by someone’s desk and react to an object. A file on a network or an image on a screen doesn’t have that same life to them.”

It may seem like an unusual perspective in an industry that drafts on a screen nowadays. “It’s the difference between a still photo and a movie,” McNeal says with a laugh. “It’s sometimes more difficult for people to engage with a still photo unless you share the story. It’s limited within a single frame. With a movie or a model, you’re able to really interact with it in a way that you can’t otherwise.”

sfmoma expansion as seen from Howard Street
Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA as seen from Howard Street. Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

Most of Snøhetta’s drawings for the new SFMOMA were generated in Autodesk Revit; some were done in AutoCAD. “We’re using Revit even now to produce our final record drawings set,” McNeal says. “It’s definitely the most significant part of our work flow once we’re at this stage.”

As Snøhetta wraps up the final stages of the new SFMOMA, and the museum prepares to welcome visitors once again, it’s hard not to think of the seeming incongruity of a building that evokes a snowy landscape opening its doors in the spring. And yet somehow, visually, it makes perfect sense.

“The alleys downtown don’t get a lot of daylight—the brightest thing around is the museum,” McNeal jokes. “It’s this beacon at the end of the street. It’s really unusual and alluring.”

The expanded SFMOMA opens to the public on May 14, 2016.

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