Complexity of Context
Downtown San Diego is nothing like beachfront La Jolla. Complicating the design problem, the downtown location already had one relatively new gallery building, was inheriting a second, the historic Santa Fe Depot baggage building across the street, and was planning a third new structure adjacent to the historic building.
Luckily, MCASD administrators were not concerned about an architectural similarity between the San Diego and La Jolla venues, leaving GMA free to focus on the immediate context of the adjacent railroad hub and the problem of tying together three disparate buildings separated by a city street.
The architects used a light hand in attacking this complex design problem, focusing on interior spatial development and taking visual cues from the surroundings to design the 29,600-square-foot (2,750-square-meter) addition in two parts.
The museum's expansion was to serve a dual purpose: heighten the museum's presence in downtown San Diego and extend existing gallery space. "We wanted to serve a broader audience and take advantage of the exploding residential growth in the area," says Denise Montgomery, director of communications for MCASD. "At the same time, maximizing gallery space was the main goal. The dedicated educational spaces and flexible meeting areas were then exciting extras."
New and Old
GMA split the new program between the several buildings, placing the main entry and 10,700 square feet (990 square meters) of exhibition space in the historic one-story baggage building, renamed the Jacobs Building. The bulk of the Jacobs Building shell restoration and improvements were undertaken by then-owner Catellus Corporation with the help of historic restoration architect, Wayne Donaldson, FAIA.
The transformation of the Jacobs Building into exhibition space added a climate-controlled white-box gallery and an artist-in-residence studio. More importantly, it introduced three open galleries to MCASD's constellation of spaces.
MCASD can now house larger installations, and inaugural pieces by artists such as Ernesto Neto and Richard Wright take full advantage of these soaring volumes. Clerestory windows flood the galleries with natural light, supplemented only on rare occasions by fluorescent strip lights mounted in the high reaches of the exposed structure.
The neighboring property to the north was added to the project scope after Catellus Corporation donated the land to MCASD in 2001. Here, the new 15,600-square-foot (1,450-square-meter) Copley Building stacks offices, meeting rooms, and other support spaces (along with leased space for Amtrak storage) on three floors. "We always thought of the importance of the historic baggage building as the main focus, and the new building is in support of this space," notes Robert White, project manager and designer for GMA.
Support it does. MCASD has relocated 40 percent of their staff to the Copley Building from the La Jolla location, and they have opened to the community an array of pleasantly lit group spaces for lectures, discussions, and parties. Additionally, all mechanical equipment for both buildings is relegated to the new building roof, hidden by the corrugated siding and keeping the depot as open as possible.
White explains the "conversation" between the two buildings: "There was definitely no desire to create pastiche, but the new building draws its architecture from the existing while remaining clearly distinct. Corrugated metal was chosen as an appropriate skin, one inspired by railcar box material. It also allowed for a play of shadow and light, similar to that of the existing terra cotta roof tiles."
The two buildings are almost formal opposites, but the color and material palettes do manage to conceptually draw them together. More of a feeling than a visual phenomenon, the juxtaposition works: the restoration of a past industrial aesthetic against the addition of a contemporary one.
Home for Art
Program separation by building also succeeds exceptionally well. Traditionally treated as outdoor space, the baggage building lends itself to installation art that does not require climate control, appreciates natural light, exploits the exposed structure, and thrives on large volumes.
Exterior plaster finishes continue into the building, with sliding/ swinging barn doors loosely separating galleries. Existing arches are modestly filled with a glass storefront system, conveniently — if not obviously — situating the main entrance in the only street-side double-wide arch.
Meanwhile, the support spaces in the Copley Building are contemporary rooms: open, well-lit, and flexible (the sliding barn door with a modern twist), with concrete or cork floors and GMA's trademark dash-dot lighting. The exterior fenestration is determined by the interior program, with a preference for long bands of glazing to maximize natural light throughout.
How does all this relate to the existing MCASD gallery across the street? By proximity and program only. The best view of the expansion is from the entrance to the existing gallery, and the two sides of the street are loosely joined by a crosswalk.
The former MCASD entrance is left untouched, while the new one is tucked into the side of the baggage building. Entry signage helps at night, but no entry dominates, leaving the novelty of the storefront in the modern Copley Building to beckon the visitor to a false entry.
Multiple buildings may confuse the overall site organization, but the new spaces themselves are not confusing in the least. They are incredible. "My favorite moments thus far have been observing people as they see the museum for the first time," observes Montgomery.
When she notes that everyone wants to be in the hot new place, she is referring not only to the visitors, but to the staff and artists as well — and that may be the highest compliment of all.
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Leigh Christy is an architect and writer living in Los Angeles.