De Young Museum: Is It Art?

December 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Across America, museums have recently opened that are challenging and I think are as beautiful as any work of art within their walls. Milwaukee’s Art Museum, the Figgie Museum in Davenport, Iowa, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the new Walker in Minneapolis.

San Francisco has just opened a new de Young Museum, and like many other museums in America, it looks like nothing else in the city in which it sits. The old de Young Museum was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

There was no question but that the museum would have to be rebuilt. Designs for the new museum were argued over, hollered over. People thought the new tower ugly, an intrusion into a beloved park, a battleship, an Aztec Temple.

The controversial tower has a 360-degree observatory from which it is now possible to stare out at a San Francisco that the museum in no way resembles.

This small, big city of San Francisco has long boasted of its exception to the rest of America. Here the misfit is welcome.

Many of us prefer to live our unorthodox lives within the shells of other lives — wooden slats, creaky floors. San Francisco’s architectural preference might well be called sentimental or brave because it is at war with the hard, concrete and glass of urban architecture, of Wal-Mart boxes and smoked-window office parks.

The de Young’s architects, the famous Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, were dismayed by the hostility to their modernist design by a city so famous for its sexual and bohemian freedom.

As it was being built, the de Young loomed repellent against the sky, armored, armadilloed, a fortress, a concentration camp.

Inside within the museum, lie scattered artifacts of the past, many pasts, an Ulmich head, a Shaker chair, a pastoral painting.

In an American city of many races, many gods, many memories, the de Young’s galleries are not separated from one another in discreet rectangles.

The museum’s strengths, Oceana, Africa, California, are fused by long walkways, but this fluid design also highlights the tension between civilization.

Outside the British nature sculptor Andy Goldsworthy has cut what resembled earthquake fault lines into the stone. Goldsworthy’s design is a most unsettling entrance into a building that should otherwise assure us of permanence.

The museum’s exterior is wrapped in a copper sheaf in which has been cut a pattern of apple shade, taken from the very trees on the site. What appears to be armor is, in fact, metamorphosis, for the copper will with time oxidize in the damp light to a bluish-green, like the leaves of the eucalyptus.

This exterior forces the visitor, whether approaching or leaving the building, ostensibly devoted to the preservation of the past, to consider the passage of time.

Perhaps this is what the new museum architecture in America is announcing by sitting so uncomfortably in the present. The museum belongs to the future as much as it belongs to the past.

In this city, especially, where the old Templeton memory had been destroyed by an earthquake, this new museum is unsettling because it reminds us so sharply of the impermanence of all that we treasure.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.