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Missed connection

Snøhetta puts many references and ideas into its extension to San Francisco MOMA, but its stated aim of connecting to the city around it is reduced to snatched views and an incongruous wrapping

View from Yerba Buena Gardens.
View from Yerba Buena Gardens. · Credit: Henrik Kam

In the 1990s, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was the first major cultural institution to move south of Market Street to an area that was full of low-income residential hotels until a government-funded redevelopment demolished them in the 1970s. Mario Botta designed a fortress for art in a neighbourhood that was slowly being developed with tourists and convention-goers in mind. It greeted visitors with patterned brick walls and mirrored doors in a recessed opening behind large columns. Capped by a monumental oculus in bands of light and dark granite that drew light into a central full height atrium, the museum was closed to the city but open to the sky.  

Now, 20 years later, the transformation of the neighbourhood is complete. Expensive hotels and luxury residential buildings flank the museum and galleries are moving in across the street. The reborn $305 million (£209 million) museum by Norway’s Snøhetta prides itself on transparency and openness. The firm won the commission from a 2010 shortlist that included David Adjaye, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Steven Holl, OMA and Renzo Piano. Emphasizing a ‘connection with the city’ was a key part of Snøhetta’s sales pitch, which sought to build on its recent success with the blending of interior and exterior at the Oslo Opera House.

The acquisition of the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection in 2009, a massive holding of postwar art compiled by the founders of the Gap clothing empire, meant the museum needed to grow. Gallery space in the new building rose from 6,500m2 to 15,800m2, and the overall building slightly more than doubled in size to 42,700m2, making it the largest modern art museum in the US (until MoMA in New York finishes its expansion).

  • Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA.
    Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA. · Credit: Henrik Kam
  • Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA.
    Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA. · Credit: Henrik Kam

Snohetta’s wing is easily noticeable when passing through the neighbourhood, but it is nearly impossible to see in its totality from ground level because of its proximity to surrounding buildings. The structure sits between Howard Street, a busy east-west artery, and lightly travelled Minna Street, a narrow alley-like road to the north. The ground floor back of house is very successful – clad in black lava stone and responding to the scale of surrounding buildings and the side of the brick facade of the Botta building.  

The mass of the building bulges in the middle and tapers to each of the street edges, where it is clad is smooth back-painted white glass. The broad east facade of the building features a rippled white surface, said to be inspired by the local geology and the mists that blow over the city on summer afternoons, as observed by Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers. However, despite the design energy expended on this facade, it is mostly visible only from the upper levels of surrounding buildings.

At first look this rippled surface could be stone, but on closer inspection it reads as ­panels with large caulk joints between them. It is a curtain wall made of 700 uniquely-shaped one centimetre thick FRP (fibreglass-reinforced polymer) panels, the first of its kind in the US and fabricated by local firm Kreysler & Associates. It’s a dramatic effect from afar, but feels cheap in the few places you can actually touch it. The surface is already attracting a noticeable amount of dirt, which makes it look more like a snowbank at the end of winter than a weightless fog.

Throwing aside the rigidly symmetrical and processional entry of Botta’s building, Snøhetta kept the entrance on Third Street and added a second at the base of the wall on Howard St around the corner. Behind floor to ceiling glass at the new wing is a huge room with two new commissioned Richard Serra sculptures titled ‘Sequence’ inside and a Roman stair at the back – an informal wood-clad amphitheatre. This contiguous space between the two entrances makes up the ‘free area’ of the building, accessible without buying a $25 ticket, stretching over 4,200m2 on the lowest two levels.


  • Alexander Calder’s Untitled (1963) on view in the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr, atrium.
    Alexander Calder’s Untitled (1963) on view in the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr, atrium. · Credit: Iwan Baan
  • City gallery stairs.
    City gallery stairs. · Credit: Iwan Baan
  • A city gallery featuring Untitled by Joel Shapiro (1989).
    A city gallery featuring Untitled by Joel Shapiro (1989). · Credit: Iwan Baan

The free area has five works of art on offer and a lot of empty floor space, presumably to accommodate large weekend crowds. The best feature of Botta’s original building, a monumental stair in dark banded granite that ran up the back of the five storey atrium, has been replaced by an asymmetrical angled stair in light wood that takes visitors from an empty ground floor lobby up to the ticketing level. The stair’s absence is impossible to ignore if you’ve visited the space before the renovation, and the hole it has left is filled by a glass railing in front of people drinking coffee in the overflow area for the café upstairs.

This café also dominates the experience of visiting the third floor. Within seconds of entering the ticketed area of the museum, the robust smell of light-roasted coffee overwhelmed my senses. The symmetry and monumental sense of procession enforced by Botta’s stair has been replaced by an experience more akin to visiting the food court at a high end shopping mall. There is something to be said for making an art museum a place for contemplation that does not look (and smell) like the rest of the world around us.

The galleries stack on levels three to seven, with staff offices on the three highest floors and the Fisher Collection displayed on four to six. Each level has different ceilings, designed around lighting, climate control and aesthetic requirements of the artwork on display. Floor levels align with the original building up through level five, creating contiguous floorplates with multiple vertical circulation points and few load-bearing walls to allow for maximum curatorial freedom. Light-coloured wood floors from the original building continue into the extension to a relentless degree, as the blonde wood marches up stairways and into the handrails.

The rear exterior wall has a collection of ‘City Galleries’ with window seats and views over surrounding buildings. Stairs between levels stack along the outside wall, which functions as a north-south circulation spine on each floor. It’s an odd strategy – while it’s said the stairs were inspired by San Francisco’s public outdoor stairways, their narrowness mostly reveals maple floors and white-painted walls instead of sweeping city views. The City Galleries struggle to organise the space in plan; they are too similar in feel to the surrounding galleries to function as a separate space or even a place to regroup.   

Building on a tight site behind an imposing existing museum was a significant challenge. A stronger organising concept and a more varied materials palette would have given the extension its own identity, but instead it feels as though fitting in the required amount of floor area on a very small footprint was the priority. It’s pleasant enough and puts viewing of the expanded collection front and centre, but in the end it is too much homogenous space in a wrapper that doesn’t have a clear connection to the building’s content or the context of the neighbourhood. The idea that the building ‘connects to the city’ is hard to grasp – yes, there are places to view your surroundings, but truly connecting to the city required a more rigorous intervention of how to relate a necessarily vertical museum to its context.


US$305m cost
21,830m2 extension size
19,000 plants in the living wall
96% reduction in overall energy use of museum




Architect Snøhetta

Associate architect EHDD

Civil engineering KPFF

Structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Sustainability consultant Atelier Ten

Façade maintenance engineer CS Caulkins

Façade design assist Kreysler & Associates, Enclos

Fire engineering The Fire Consultants

Lighting, acoustics, AV and facade engineer ARUP

Electrical The Engineering Enterprise

Living mechanical and plumbing Taylor Engineering

Wall consultant Habitat Horticulture and Hyphae Design Lab

Vertical transportation EWCG