Paula Hendricks

Author ~:~ Writer ~:~ Book Designer ~:~ Book Producer

The de Young museum

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My experience with the new de Young museum has been revelatory, freeing; — it’s been a watershed for me in terms of my appreciation of new buildings.

I really dislike a lot of modern architecture. For a long time I thought I hated all modern architecture; that I was a perfect San Franciscan, focused on the past and unwilling to experiment.

A friend gave me the book, From Bauhaus to Our House, and I realized that so much of what I dislike is the perfection, the sterility, and the ultimately recti-linear quality of many new buildings — and the overuse of glass. I look at many old buildings, like the Chrysler Building in New York, or The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, or the blocks of The Place des Vosges in Paris and my soul sighs in pleasure. It breathes and recognizes these places as somehow being of human scale and enticing to human connecting. Even the monumental buildings in Greece, on the Parthenon, seem somehow to have something to do with being human.

So much of the “new” has to do with technology – what we can do, with materials, with machines; and less to do with what we want to do to enhance the human condition and experience. Just because we can seems to have invaded our lives in architecture as much as the Internet.

It’s as though we want to somehow deny our humanness and become perfect machines and live in perfect and perfectly designed spaces. I heard just the other day that humans are stubbornly analog and so many keep trying to adapt us to a digital world, rather than the other way around. Digital thinking is different than analog. When I read this my little brain went, oh yes.

We would benefit more by using digital (or machines or technology) to support our humanness rather than trying to re-wire our human brains into more and more digital-like modes or to get us humans to conform to digital realities instead of the other way around.

Anyway, what does this have to do with architecture and the de Young? The early renderings seemed to be just more of the blank-walled new. I felt grumpy; that maybe I couldn’t handle change, wasn’t interested in innovation, or anything that smacked of the new. I found myself disliking the early images I was seeing: This plain, very very plain, long brown box, low to the ground, with this weird funnel attached to one side. I am one who liked the old de Young building. I hated that it had to go. I would have voted against this metal clad box.

Even when I was offered a tour of the museum while it was under construction, I held off. I just didn’t like what I was seeing. I felt we had gone from a charming old building to a sterile brown box.

About a year ago, I went to the de Young. I wanted to experience it for myself. It hadn’t been open a year yet. I wasn’t one of the first ones – I waited a while.

I parked on Fulton, near 10th. And found my way into the park. As I moved up this slight rise, with these great eucalyptus trees on my right, I saw through the canopy this twisting porous metal tower. It rose between two tall trees and I could see through the skin to the building inside. It was dramatic. It was dynamic – the torquing of the tower made it feel alive because it seemed to twist and turn as I walked. With every step I had a different perspective and the tower itself felt alive.

I even liked the dark brown color. It worked with the trees. With the green and deep brown earth and the bark. I loved it. I loved seeing this tower rise from the park, knowing it was embedded in the ground just out of sight.

As I got closer, I saw the plantings and the arbors that vines were beginning to climb. I saw boardwalks and rocks used as mulch and undulating gardens. Little hills had been created; it wasn’t just flat. I saw the Pool of Enchantment with the old statues and lily pads. I saw an almost hidden entrance; a shallow shadowed alcove, with a glass door. It felt quiet, not grand. And I went in. Later I realized this is called the Children’s entrance. I did not go in the front door and to this day I have not entered the museum from the front door.

I walked in, took a few steps, and fell in love. I could see through the floor to ceiling windows the atriums with ferns planted in sloping hills covered with shiny rock – shale or some other flat stones like river rocks. The ferns were bright green against the dark brown and shiny golden copper surface of the building.

I saw into the entry courtyard through more walls of glass to Andrew Goldsworthy’s site-specific installation with all the cracks through the blocks of stone and through the stones laid on the ground. All based on our earthquake prone geography.

I saw a space where I could breathe. Breathe and appreciate and see art. There weren’t a lot of people hovering. It was a huge space but quiet and sound didn’t echo. There were these great wide stairs leading down to the lower level, that ran along the atrium and behind the entry desks. It was clear where everything was and how it worked and where you would go to find out more information.

So, what do I love about the de Young? I love the space inside. I love the café with these chairs that I thought would be uncomfortable as they were all these geometric shapes in metal and they are super comfortable. I love the bookstore with its two floors of art and books. I love the view of the city and the Bay Area from the observation tower. I love looking down on the roof, which is called the fifth wall, as it reveals the shape of the museum itself. I love looking through the holes in the copper skin. I love that the panels of the skin are an artistic rendering of the tree canopy in the park. I love that as the building ages, it is turning green, not like so many lofts downtown that as they age, they rust and tarnish the façade of the building in unattractive ways. This building has been designed and built so the aging process is part of its beauty. I love the inside outside nature of the fern atriums. I love the huge, and I mean huge, metal overhang outside the café. This industrial sculpture that is really a partial roof over the patio near the sculpture garden. I love taking friends there.

I still am not attracted to the front of the museum. Oh, I go out the front to get a perspective. And I like the way the de Young name has been subtly “printed” on the copper skin near the entrance, but I find the entry plain, boring.

I will continue to bring friends. We will park on Fulton Street and approach through the trees and see the tower rise up in all its twisted splendor and I’ll take them into the museum through the side door. And hopefully they will also fall in love.

What this experience has shown me is that I do like modern architecture. I do like innovative spaces. I do like new things. But they have to be good. They have to be human-centric and they have to enhance the human experience, not just accommodate us. We analog humans just don’t digitize well. We are neither machine made nor perfect. Nor are we recti-linear. We are messy and creative and want to be inspired. The de Young honors all that and more. I am now a Charter member.


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