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September 16, 2010

This week, Snøhetta principals Craig Dykers and Kjetil Thorsen visited the City by the Bay to hint at what's in store for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expansion. Though initial design concepts aren't expected until spring 2011, here we take a jab at what we can expect.

The New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jens Passoth, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jens Passoth, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
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The Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
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The interior of the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The interior of the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
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The Lillehammer Art Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. Photo by Jiri Havran, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The Lillehammer Art Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. Photo by Jiri Havran, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art SFMoMA

Just over a year after announcing plans to expand the Mario Botta-designed structure in April 2009—-and beginning the first steps to acquire the Fisher Collection the same year--the SFMoMA narrowed its choice of firms for the new space to Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Foster + Partners, and Snøhetta. Dkyers and Thorsen's firm (based in both Oslo and New York) won out--a natural selection, SFMoMA director Neal Benezra stated--and this week the partners introduced San Francisco firm EHDD, under the direction of Duncan Ballash, as the local architects of record for the project. (In a humble moment, Dykers added that he was "young enough that we studied EHDD's Monterey Bay Aquarium in school.")

Designs are yet to hit the drafting tables and already there's a buzz of excitement. "Other museums are finished or aren't planning expansions so this is a rare opportunity to do something new," Thorsen said. "So much information and technology has amassed in the last two years that we get to integrate." Though mum's the word for now, a review of Snøhetta's previous works hint at what's to come.

First and foremost, expect a structure that will capture the firm's favorite buzzword: engagement. "Architecture does not exist on its own; it's value only comes from people using it," Thorsen said on Wednesday from the Roof Garden of the SFMoMA. Case in point: The New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Completed in 2008, the celebrated structure connects the city and its fjord as well as outside and the inside with a sloping roof that ramps around and over the interior concert hall. "We wanted to breakdown the barriers between institutions and the public," Thorsen said. "It's hard to have a relationship with something you cannot sit on or lay on." And sure enough, the public structure has become a public space, playing host to free outdoor concerts on its ramps and home to a local tai chi group that meets at 5 a.m. each morning on the roof. (We might also be able to expect a similar shifting of levels via ramps like those at the New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet: "We have the influence of the topography of the city and culture to consider," Dykers said.)

The New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jens Passoth, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Jens Passoth, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.

The architects also wanted to extend the interaction of the public with the activities that take place inside when the opera and ballet are not in season. To achieve this, they oriented private spaces to the exterior. Instead of hiding workrooms in the depths of the building, the wig-making studio and stage-building areas are viewable through easily accessible windows along the outside. "It was important to have other activities on display because the building doesn't have performances all day long," Thorsen said.

Dykers noted similar patterns of engagement at the Alexandria Library in Egypt, completed in 2001. The structure slopes into the earth on Alexandria's waterfront and keeps a low profile despite offering more than 800,00 square feet of public space, including museum and assembly areas. Here, when taxi drivers pass, Dykers said, they routinely honk their horns at the building as if to say hello.

The Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.

The Alexandria Library features another element likely to be found in the SFMoMA expansion: natural light. Because working electricity is not always reliable, Dykers said, the architects were forced to creative passive lighting and cooling strategies. Likewise, the new SFMoMA will "open itself up more," Dykers said. "It'll be about looking outward as well as looking inward."

The interior of the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The interior of the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by James Willis, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.

Finally, as Thorsen pointed to, the addition will put into play new technologies and ideas about collecting, storing, and displaying art developed over the past few decades. Snøhetta's 1994 Lillehammer Art Museum in Norway was designed with the foresight to incorporate structures that would allow specific, innovative exhibitions and displays that would have otherwise been not possible in an existing building that didn't have the behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

The Lillehammer Art Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. Photo by Jiri Havran, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.
The Lillehammer Art Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. Photo by Jiri Havran, courtesy Snøhetta and SFMoMA.

What will actually be build, however, only the coming months will tell. In the meantime, we'll be watching the firm's work--including its newly commissioned Times Square reconstruction--for hints.

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