Art and Architecture Cool off on the California coast

This article is part of our latest special section on Museumswhich focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


SAN DIEGO – The Pacific Ocean constantly laps the coast not far from the one that has just been renovated and enlarged San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art serves as a metaphor for the successive waves of architecture that have formed the institution since its foundation.

High on a cliff here in the affluent village of La Jolla, it was founded in 1941 in the house Irving Gill designed by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. The museum, which has had several names over the years, has been expanded three times over the decades by the company then known as Mosher and Drewand in 1996 it received a major restyling from the first Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

Now, the New York company Selldorf architects has had its turn, presenting an addition and revision that may be the most transformative yet – and one that incorporated previous iterations.

Opened on April 9, the $ 105 million project doubles the museum’s overall floor area and quadruples the gallery space, transforming the institution and what it can do. The museum was closed for three years during construction, although its satellite branch in downtown San Diego, founded in 2007, remained open.

A space crisis had stood in the way of the museum for years and was forcing staff to make tough choices.

“We couldn’t have a special exhibit on display at the same time as our permanent collection,” said museum director Kathryn Kanjo, standing in front of the nearly completed museum on a sunny March day. She added that the problem has been exacerbated because “our collections have more than doubled in the last 40 years”.

The museum shows its new breadth with a special exhibition, “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s”, with 94 works, as well as several galleries displaying pieces from the permanent collection.

Madame de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a French artist who gained fame for colorful and bold works, such as when she had a sniper fire a rifle at sculptures she had set with balloons filled with paint. She lived through the last phase of her life in La Jolla.

The expansion project here had a long timeline. Selldorf Architects won a competition to design it in 2014.

“It looks like we’ve been waiting for this for years – and we literally are,” said the philanthropist irwin jacob, a co-founder of Qualcomm. Together with his wife, Joan, he donated $ 20 million for the project; the new building is named after the couple. (They also put in a couple of sculptures, including a pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama.)

In addition to the need for space, Ms. Kanjo said the museum’s job was: “Please try to respect our architectural heritage, but also bring some clarity to it.”

For the founder of the architecture firm, Annabelle Selldorf, the project was interesting because in a way it was exactly in her wheelhouse, but it also allowed her to push her own limits.

“People always think we are doing sensitive historical renovations, but that’s not all we do,” said Ms. Selldorf.

His many high-profile cultural projects include the 2001 transformation of an Upper East Side mansion into New gallery New York, David Zwirner‘s 20th Street gallery in Chelsea and the upcoming refurbishment of the Frick collection.

“It’s very important because it’s new,” said Ms. Selldorf of the San Diego museum. “It is my largest newly built institution. And it stands on two feet “.

The main addition is at the southern end of the museum, on a lot that was purchased to provide space for the extension. Ms. Selldorf used textured concrete and travertine, among other materials, to create what she called “a space that is well-balanced, well-proportioned, calm, focused, and not gesture-based,” meaning it has no shape. surprising that draws attention to itself.

In this, it was in line with both current and previous museum leadership.

“We opposed the idea of ​​an archistar beating his chest,” said Hugh Davies, the former director of the museum, who was involved in the early stages of the project. “But we really needed more space – it wasn’t a free expansion.”

Some of the new galleries replace a former auditorium space, giving them dramatic 20-foot ceilings, and exhibition spaces are varied in shape throughout.

Mr. Jacobs noted that driving through the museum is now also easier. “He has provided us with a consistent way for people to tour,” he said of Ms. Selldorf’s plan.

The architect also kept in mind the most obvious thing about the museum: its location, a relatively rare seaside resort for an arts institution. “It’s a spectacular location and the views are phenomenal,” said Ms. Selldorf.

To connect the museum to nature, he transformed a small parking lot at the north end of the campus into a sculpture garden and added terraces around the building. Skylights and vertical windows bring the site’s distinct natural light and coastal views into the new galleries.

Merging multiple iterations of the museum had its challenges, and a modification made by Ms. Selldorf ruffled some feathers: she removed a line of thick columns that were in front of the Gil building and were part of the Venturi Scott Brown project.

A petition signed by architects and conservationists asked for it to be kept as is and said the changes would be a “tremendous mistake”.

Ms Selldorf – who did not substantially alter most of the Venturi Scott Brown project, including the striking Axline Court, formerly the entrance area – said her intention to remove the columns was to achieve “greater clarity. in the history of the whole building types. “

He noted that the columns themselves were something of an intervention, as they were placed in front of Gil’s much earlier structure, built in 1916. (For those curious, the columns are now kept next to the museum, in the garden of the La Jolla Historical Society. .)

“Today you can see the Irving Gill building completely free,” he added.

Denise Scott Brown, who was a principal of Venturi Scott Brown, was among the opposing people and Ms. Selldorf decided to meet her in person.

“Eventually, I was able to talk to Denise, and I’m so happy with that,” Ms. Selldorf said. “My only regret is that I didn’t speak to her at the very beginning of the project.”

Now that substantially more works of art will be on display, museum visitors will be able to see the contours of the museum’s collection more clearly.

“Our strength is really in the art of this region, the West Coast,” said Ms. Kanjo, especially the California Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 1970s, with artists such as Larry Bell and Helen Pashgian, both all of whom currently have works in sight.

The regional focus also extends to the south.

“We are busy at the border, so we have the strength in Latinx’s work,” said Ms. Kanjo, adding, “We are closer to Tijuana than to Los Angeles.”

The opening list includes collections of the artist known simply as Marisol (nee María Sol Escobar); Celia Alvarez Munoz; and Alejandro Diaz. A wide range of famous artists are also on display, including Robert Irwin, Jack Whitten and Helen Frankenthaler.

Ms. Selldorf said that her goal with the whole project, and especially with the transparent entrance pavilion, which is largely made of glass, what to make people want to go inside to see the art.

“I’ve been thinking about how I can engage people and make them feel like they’re welcome,” she said. “I know it sounds a little corny, but I think it’s really important.”

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