Surface texture in new building design

Witold Rybczynski in Slate:

Deyoung8The new de Young museum in San Francisco, which opened in 2005, replaces a Spanish-style building that had been insensitively “modernized” in 1949, fatally weakened by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and finally demolished in 2003. Despite billing itself as a “museum of the 21st century,” the new building has many of the hallmarks of a 19th-century art gallery: skylights, separate wings for different collections, landscaped courtyards, and a grand staircase. What is decidedly unconventional, in this age of extrovert cultural institutions, is the exterior appearance, which, from a distance, is slightly forbidding, uncommunicative, almost grim.

Unusual exterior cladding is something of a trademark of the primary design architects, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, who have previously used skins of twisted copper strips, printed acrylic, and silk-screened glass and concrete. The walls of the de Young are paper-thin copper panels, both dimpled and perforated. The dimples—concave and convex—create changing textures, while the perforations, which vary in size and density, emphasize the thinness and create the effect of a scrim. Like the exteriors of many recent buildings (Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron’s own addition to the Walker Art Gallery), the walls neither reveal structure nor express inner organization. Instead, the patterns are purely ornamental, which makes them curiously similar in function to the moldings and decorations on the exteriors of classical buildings. The trend suggests just how far from its Modernist roots the current generation of architects has strayed.

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