Snøhetta completes a glacial extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Iwan Baan, Henrik Kam

Snøhetta’s 10-storey extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) adds 235,000 square feet of exhibition and social space, and creates a pale, crystalline counterpoint to the red brick solidity of the Mario Botta building which has been the institution’s home since 1995.

Constrained by neighbouring buildings as well as existing rights of way, the extension needed to be both shallow and tall, and was conceived as a “backdrop or middle ground” to Botta’s building when seen from the front, says project architect Simon Ewings. It mediates in scale between its low-rise host and high-rise neighbours, and bridges a public right-of-way.


The form and material expression of the new building suggest a block of rough stone cut smooth on three faces. It alludes to both urban and natural structures, and to the character of San Franciso as an orthogonal man-made grid laid over an undulating topgraphy, says Ewings. The ‘uncut’ north-east-facing rear facade puckers and bulges to form outdoor terraces, and is articulated by smaller ripples in the lightweight FRP cladding. Its stratification lightly echoes the stepped terraces of Botta’s building. Viewed from Yerba Buena Gardens to the south-west, the extension’s roofline is ‘pinched’ over the Botta building’s distinctive central oculus – a champfered cyclinder of black and white brick.

The museum’s main entrance remains the top-lit foyer of the Botta building on Yerba Buena Gardens, but additional entrances have been created on Third and Howard Streets, where a fully-glazed gallery acts as both foyer and free public exhibition space.


The pathways from all three entrances meet at a second-floor Hall where the two blocks intersect. “Our idea with cultural buildings is always to make them low-threshold, easy access”, says Ewings, and here that entailed creating a sense of continuity between the interior and the street, and making the 6.5-metre ascent feel as comfortable as possible. In the Botta building, a new dog-leg stair rises from the ground-floor foyer to the Hall; though large, it has an “almost domestic feeling”, suggests Ewings. The approach from Howard Street climbs broad timber stairs that double as seating for events.

Galleries are flexible and column-free, with a design that “rigorously eliminates visual clutter and emphasises simplicity”. They include a raw, loft-like contemporary gallery adjoining a seventh-floor terrace, a white box “with potential” in which to show new work, and 60,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors dedicated to the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection.


The circulation route is punctuated by “icon spaces” containing single celebrated works, and extensive areas are set aside for relaxation and reflection. The long City Galleries have no works on show, but provide views out to the urban landscape. External terraces are used to show sculpture, but were also provided “because it’s a big building and we felt it important not to continue the same internalised experience all the way through”, says Ewings. Stepping outside “gives people the chance to process what they’ve seen”. The mix reflects the dual role of the contemporary museum, as a temple to art and a lively public forum.

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