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Controversial museum design makes its mark

The de Young's copper-clad exterior is not to everyone's taste.

(famsf.org/Mark Darley)

The new de Young Memorial Museum, planned by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, has opened near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Reviled by some, lauded by others, its design has left no one indifferent in a city renowned for its openness, but often conservative when it comes to architecture.

The public was able to access the museum for the first time this weekend, but for months critics have been finding creative ways to deride the design of San Francisco's latest cultural landmark.

Terms like "rusty Star Destroyer" and "aircraft carrier" have been bandied about to describe feelings about the de Young's angular and copper-clad exterior.

Herzog and de Meuron were chosen to design the ultramodern replacement for the old, earthquake-damaged de Young, which had to be torn down after 81 years in Golden Gate Park.

The pair - who have received architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Pritzker Prize - are also responsible for the main stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Tate Modern museum in London and the expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Paintings, indigenous art

The de Young, funded through private donations, houses a diverse permanent collection of American paintings and decorative arts, indigenous art from North, Central and South America, ancient and contemporary African art, Oceanic art and textiles.

"The museum has always wanted a building that would elicit excitement, and you don't do that with a humdrum design," said Deborah Frieden, who oversaw the project.

Some critics have hailed the building as a "museum for the 21st century" and a "notch below perfection."

Prominent architects and urban planners have also rallied to the museum's defence, dismissing complaints as predictable growing pains. Beneath San Francisco's reputation as a bastion of tolerance, they note, beats the heart of a small town as provincial and mistrustful of change as the next.

Critical response

They point to the indignation that greeted another Swiss design in San Francisco ten years ago, Mario Botta's Museum of Modern Art.

They reckon that the latest brouhaha will fade as the de Young's copper skin mellows to a green patina.

"It has often been said that people believe San Francisco was perfect the day they moved into the city, and anything that was built after they came here spoils it," said Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Urban Planning and Research Association.

Despite being under attack ever since their design was chosen in 1999, Herzog and de Meuron have brushed off criticism.

"It's all in the past," Herzog told swissinfo. "Besides, there is always opposition for any project."

Copper coating

Besides the perforated copper coating, the museum's most striking exterior elements include a recessed stone courtyard for the main entrance, an asymmetrical tower and narrow windows that run perpendicular to the rest of the low-slung building.

While the Swiss architects conceived the copper cladding to mimic the effect of sun-dappled trees, their efforts have gone unappreciated by environmentalists who unsuccessfully fought the 43-metre tower that rises above the park's real trees.

From afar, the building seems to fit snugly into the surrounding landscape.

Inside, visitors flow through different wings that bend and come together to give the museum an organic feel that is reinforced with plenty of natural and artificial light.

"The de Young houses a very heterogeneous collection, so we wanted to create different spaces that still fitted together," said Herzog.

"I think we managed this since there is almost a natural flow between the museum's rooms."

Matter of time

The architects hope that locals will accept the building now it is open to the public.

Christian Simm, who runs Swissnex, the local Swiss science and technology centre, reckons it is only a matter of time.

"I think the people of San Francisco haven't taken over the building yet," he told swissinfo. "You have to go inside to get a feel for it, because it is magnificent."

Herzog and de Meuron have more projects on the go in the United States, including another museum.

They have been chosen to design the new Parrish Museum building on Long Island, which should open for business in 2009.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The de Young Museum in San Francisco was designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
The building replaced an older one damaged by an earthquake in 1989.
The project cost $202 million (SFr260 million) and took six years to build.
It was funded by private donations after voters refused to let the city raise the necessary cash from a bond issue.

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