Galleries employ a variety of energy-efficient lighting strategies—including skylights and a cove-lighting system custom-designed by Snøhetta—to reduce reliance on spotlights. Interior photography by Jasper Sanidad for Contract

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Shoehorned behind the existing building by Mario Botta, the new addition to the revamped San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) makes a virtue out of a tight footprint. The narrow 10-story, $305 million structure provides an enjoyably urban experience. Architecture firm Snøhetta has created human-scaled galleries, intriguing stairways, and windows and terraces that open to engage the city. In one of the largest museums devoted to modern and contemporary art in the United States, the architecture entices visitors away from the art only so they can return to it refreshed.

“The vertical circulation was one of the biggest challenges,” says Lara Kaufman, a project architect with Snøhetta. “We wanted to create a continuous flow for visitors, a way that they could navigate intuitively through the museum on a footpath via the stairs. You can see outside, get up in the air, take a break, and then return to your one-on-one experience with the art.”

Much of the 235,000-square-foot addition accommodates the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, a pre-eminent assemblage of postwar and contemporary art, with galleries devoted to works by Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, and other notable artists. Serra’s 2006 “Sequence,” a monumental labyrinth of Corten steel, occupies the ground floor, a substantial appetizer to the visual feast seen on the floors above.

“We have a variety of spaces that allow us to show our collection to its very best,” says Ruth Berson, SFMOMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs. “Some are intimate, some are larger, some have different ceiling heights, and some are lit by skylights, while others are lit by artificial light.”

Art, light, and visual repose
A sequence of staircases invites visitors to traverse a light-filled circulation route. To protect the art from direct sunlight, the architects created wide, glazed corridors adjacent to the galleries that offer glimpses out to the city. The seventh-floor terrace, with its views of the surrounding cityscape, exerts a pull to the top public level. The three levels above are restricted to staff and contain mostly open-plan offices, designed by Snøhetta with furniture selection by STUDIOS Architecture, that feature expanses of glass on all four sides.

The galleries are contained in a 57-foot-wide bay, which is subdivided by nonstructural walls, giving curators the flexibility to easily change configurations for exhibitions. The width was determined in part by the maximum throw of the ventilation system, which is concealed along the top of the long walls to avoid cluttering the ceiling with diff users. The lower galleries employ a custom cove-lighting system developed by Snøhetta. Linear LED fixtures provide ambient illumination and minimize the need for energy-intensive spotlights (contributing to the addition’s targeted LEED Gold rating). The waveshaped coves emit light from only one side, subtly orienting visitors toward the east, where the windows and the circulation are located.

As befits an art museum, the walls are white, and other finishes are restrained. Window seats lined with maple planks are the main punctuation of materiality. The design team did have some fun with the bathrooms: cubes of saturated color, each floor a different shade, including red-orange, green, and purple. But the biggest break from the vivid artwork against a white backdrop is the 30-foot-by-150-foot living wall. Cascading, lush native ferns can be closely scrutinized from the third-floor terrace, and the wall also offers visual repose through windows from the second to fifth floors.

An organic appearance with fluidity and ease

On the exterior, the rippled facade demonstrates the possibilities of a relatively new cladding material. Approximately 700 individually modeled FRP (fiberglass-reinforced polymer) rain-screen panels, essentially lightweight fiberglass with a cement finish, are an inexpensive alternative to weighty concrete. The architectural inspiration is a little muddled—Snøhetta Principal Craig Dykers has referred to fog and the mountains of Yosemite—but the building’s organic shape is certainly a new direction for San Francisco architecture

Indeed, the primary downside to joining this new building to the 1995 brick structure designed by Botta is that the Snøhetta addition cannot have the satisfying heft and street presence of an architectural landmark. From outside, Snøhetta’s structure will always be seen as a towering backdrop. The Botta building continues in the starring role along Third Street, but its gutted grand lobby— now with a less-grand staircase—resembles nothing so much as an abandoned mall. The contemporary fluidity and ease of the Snøhetta addition make Botta’s postmodern formality look strikingly dated. Perhaps the side-by-side comparison will nudge civic leaders and developers in San Francisco, a city known for its architectural conservatism, to be braver in their future choices.

who Architect and interior architect: Snøhetta. FF&E design for offices and public areas: STUDIOS Architecture. Associate architect: EHDD. Snøhetta project team: Nick Anderson; Behrang Behin; Samuel Brissette; Chad Carpenter; Aaron Dorf; Craig Dykers; Simon Ewings; Aroussiak Gabrielian; Kyle Johnson; Nick Koster; Lara Kaufman Marianne Lau; Jon McNeal; Neda Mostafavi; Anne Rachel Schimann; Carrie Tsang; Giancarlo Valle. STUDIOS project team: Stephanie Hallam; Samantha Rose; Enrique Sanchez; Erik Sueberkrop. Contractor: Webcor Builders. Engineering: Magnusson Klemencic Associates; Taylor Engineering; The Engineering Enterprise; KPFF. Landscape: Snøhetta. Graphics: SOM Graphics. Lighting/acoustician/facade consultant: Arup. Facade design assistant contractor: Enclos; Kreysler & Associates. Telcom: TEECOM. Security: Turk Technologies. Conservation labs: Samuel Anderson Architects. Living wall: Habitat Horticulture/Hyphae Design Lab. Sustainability: Atelier Ten. LEED: EHDD. Facade maintenance: CS Caulkins. Fire life safety & code: The Fire Consultants. Waterproofing: McGinnis Chen Associates. Hardware: Allegion.
what Paint: Benjamin Moore. Laminate: Wilsonart. Drywall: Georgia Pacific; USG. Tile: Daltile. Overhead folding acoustic partitions: Skyfold. Hard flooring: Madsen; Associated Terrazzo, Duraflex Epoxy. Resilient flooring: Forbo Marmoleum; Allstate. Carpet/ carpet tile: Tretford; Interface. Ceiling Pyrok; Rockfon; Geometrik. Interior lighting: feelux; Lucifer; whitegoods; Kirlin; Xal; LSI Industries; Solavanti Lighting; Lutron; BK Lighting; ACDC. Doors: Ellison; Dorma; Crown Industrial; Toland; Smoke Guard; Total Doors. Architectural glass/ glazing: Silicon Valley Glass. Architectural/custom woodworking: Crestmark; Webcor ICG; Madsen Builders. Planters/accessories: The Chandler Company. Signage: Thomas Swann. Plumbing: Kohler; American Standard; Zurn; Elkay. Workstations: Herman Miller; Andreu World. Seating: Vitra; Herman Miller; Theater Solutions; B&B Italia; Studio Brovhn; Bernhardt Design; Viccarbe; Arper; Andreu World; Alias. Upholstery: Maharam; Herman Miller; Anzea; Vitra; Momentum Group. Conference: Herman Miller; Geiger. Pantry tables: West Coast Industries. Reception desk: CGL Interiors. Side tables: Vitra. Library tables: Bernhardt Design. Other tables: Studio Brovhn; Geiger; Viccarbe; Vitra; Geiger. Storage systems: Herman Miller; CGL Interiors; Pemco.