A visit to San Francisco and the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park inspires reflection on the role of the museum in the contemporary society. Museums certainly continue to serve the function of storing and properly displaying works of art but as a typology the modern museum may be the most accessible expression of evocative architecture we have. The De Young Museum, designed by Swiss architects Hurzog & de Meuron, rises out of the tree canopy like a battle tank out of Star Wars. At first it seems incredibly out of scale and out of place, however, the design has a surprisingly sensitive connection to it's surroundings. The corten steel cladding and semi-transparent articulation causes the mass to recede into the landscape at ground level. (It's interesting to note that the California Institute of Science by Renzo Piano facing the De Young on the opposite side of the park has a completely opposite effect on it's surroundings.)
A carefully orchestrated garden path leads visitors to the side entrance where an elevator leads to the observation tower. The observation tower is the most impressive part of the building and it's even free to the public. Exiting the elevator nine stories above the ground, the view is simply jaw-dropping. It would be impressive enough to have a 360 degree view of the city but the architects control the view in a way that one looks out through a 8' tall band of windows, free of vertical mullions, at just above the tree canopy to see a view of the city that's not often seen.
The museum itself is large, however narrow wedge-shaped courtyards are inserted into the mass to bring greenery and natural light into the center of the museum. This effectively maintains a connection to the park surrounding the building. The courtyards are lush, tranquil and reflect the flora native to the west coast.
Modern museums house works of art but the architecture of the museum has become a provocative work of art in itself. In fact, the De Young caused quite a stir among San Franciscans who thought it too bold, too odd and out of place for their city. Over time it has become an icon of modern architecture for the city.
Interesting fact: the architect for the De Young Museum was slated to design the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin and was replaced by a more conservative architect from Boston.