De Young Museum: Alien invasion

I suppose the most surprising thing about the de Young Museum is the way that it creeps up on you. I mean, it’s in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park – a long sliver of a green running with deliberate orthogonality west from the centre of the city to the Pacific shoreline, and bigger in area than Central Park. Plus it’s a stone’s throw from the eponymous bridge for God’s sake. It’s not like they do things by half measures in America – even in a modest-sized city such as this.

I suppose the most surprising thing about the de Young Museum is the way that it creeps up on you. I mean, it’s in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park – a long sliver of a green running with deliberate orthogonality west from the centre of the city to the Pacific shoreline, and bigger in area than Central Park. Plus it’s a stone’s throw from the eponymous bridge for God’s sake. It’s not like they do things by half measures in America – even in a modest-sized city such as this.
 
It didn’t take long to realise that the city’s x and y grid gave no indication as to the z dimension and I’d find myself just laughing on a street corner, confronted by some fresh vertiginous slope either up or down. Pained by my lack of a car I was marking them jealously as I passed, parked up, their front wheels all turned full into the sidewalk’s kerb like big dark eyes askance, avoiding the view from the edge. Here, homes in Classical, Queen Anne or vernacular styles drop away from each other casually in some nonchalant seismic slippage. With all that going on, it’s no wonder I missed the de Young’s 44m high tower, sat low on the city’s western plain, despite its rubbernecking twist.
 
Given that one is conditioned to approach any Herzog & de Meuron building with a kind of hushed reverence, I’ll have to put it down to inexplicable schadenfreude that I found the de Young underwhelming. I’d imagined myself to be more struck by the sculptural quality of its thick copper carapace, a look much imitated, but in reality it seemed more deliberate and severe than joyful. It works better close-up, where its perforated nature comes into play, the oxidising skin offset at the reveal of the entrance by gold backed glass panels, where names of the de Young’s affluent donors are set in burnished gilt.
 
But the building’s a stealth bomber. Beyond the courtyard, where you’d expect some softening or exposition, the museum defies interrogation – the envelope wraps homogenously around; a single surface effect repeated everywhere. Once inside, a squashed quadrilateral of sunlit green atrium running the length of the lobby’s far wall struggled to mask the copper surface. But there was a darkness to the museum’s lobby, suspended ceilings unrelenting, broken only by a grand, if obvious staircase up to the piano nobile of upper gallery levels. Against the intent of its donors, one assumes, the space seemed to suffer a general meanness of spirit. That said, the restaurant was packed – maybe the diners were just craving the sunlight it offered.
 
I came away thinking the de Young’s monolithic nature inappropriate to San Francisco, a place that seems to defy American urban conventions; a grid, but more complex, detailed and nuanced. Perhaps the de Young surprised me because, given its aesthetic, in my mind I’d sited it in the grittier, more wily Los Angeles. With its defensive skin – a Möbius strip of inscrutability, antithetical to this city’s variegated urban grain – perhaps that’s where it actually belongs.