A Game-Changing Museum Becomes a New Symbol of UC Davis

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By Jenny Xie
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Blanketed by a rolling Grand Canopy, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art provides an interdisciplinary space for art, education, and community events.

Set in the farmlands of California’s Central Valley, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art opens on November 13 at UC Davis, both a repository of work by influential artists of the region and a community hub for events across different disciplines. The associated architects SO - IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, along with contractor Whiting-Turner, were the winners of an international design-build competition announced in 2013. Their vision for an undulating Grand Canopy—now an architectural statement visible from Interstate 80—integrates indoor and outdoor space and connects pavilions designed for a mixture of academic, exhibition, and public use. A harbinger of innovations in campus design, the Manetti Shrem Museum provides an interactive forum that goes well beyond the arts community.

The Manetti Shrem Museum, viewed here from the northwest, sits on a main thoroughfare and acts as one of the main portals onto campus. Across the street is the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. 

The Manetti Shrem Museum, viewed here from the northwest, sits on a main thoroughfare and acts as one of the main portals onto campus. Across the street is the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. 

The agrarian surroundings provided inspiration for the Grand Canopy, a sweeping roof whose aluminum infill beams create a texture echoing the topography of the Central Valley. "If you think of the agricultural landscape, it’s not a romantic landscape," says Florian Idenburg, founding partner and principal at Brooklyn-based SO - IL. "There’s a certain geometry. At the same time, the Sacramento River is a much more organic form, so we played with the sinuous and the gridded or striped to allude to that pattern." The canopy rises 34 feet high and dips to 12 feet high above the entrance, and the intricate patterns created by the beams almost never repeat. "As you fly over the valley, those lines are rarely consistent in their orientation," elaborates Karl Backus, principal at San Franciscan firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. "They’re quite varied on their angles. Picking up on that made the canopy texture even richer."

The Events Plaza is meant to feel like a micro-environment with plantings designed to give the feel of a forest understory.

The Events Plaza is meant to feel like a micro-environment with plantings designed to give the feel of a forest understory.

"The way we approached [the project] is: come up with one strong, clear gesture which is the Grand Canopy, and have underneath a variety of spaces that are flexible because its an evolving, newly emerging organization," says Idenburg.

"The way we approached [the project] is: come up with one strong, clear gesture which is the Grand Canopy, and have underneath a variety of spaces that are flexible because its an evolving, newly emerging organization," says Idenburg.

The permeable membrane of the Grand Canopy not only unifies over 44,400 square feet of interior and exterior space, but it also stands as an architectural metaphor for the goal of the museum. Its porosity, describes Idenburg, speaks to "the idea of introducing the arts as something that is not a fixed jewel box, but is something accessible and approachable. The landscape of the campus grounds continue under the roof." Indeed, the campus bleeds into an environment of changing light and shadow, creating a liminal space that can be adapted for open-air exhibitions, performances, and other events.

The lobby opens to the Community Education Room, creating a single stage for gatherings and programs. 

The lobby opens to the Community Education Room, creating a single stage for gatherings and programs. 

"One element that captures the DNA of the building is the rain disk," says Idenburg. "It illustrates the possibility of the canopy becoming part of the infrastructure."

"One element that captures the DNA of the building is the rain disk," says Idenburg. "It illustrates the possibility of the canopy becoming part of the infrastructure."

Four opening exhibits will welcome visitors on November 13—Hoof & Foot: A Field Study, a video installation by Bay Area artist Chris Sollars that speaks to the role of animals and agriculture in the UC Davis curriculum; A Pot for a Latch, an interactive sculpture by Mexico City-based artist Pia Camil; Out of Our Way, a collection showcasing the 12 artists Richard L. Nelson, founding chair of the UC Davis art department, hired during his tenure; and The Making of a Museum presented by SO - IL.

The exhibition spaces have polished concrete floors and custom aluminum mesh ceilings that are fitted with occupant-controlled LED lights. The museum is on course to be LEED-certified.

The exhibition spaces have polished concrete floors and custom aluminum mesh ceilings that are fitted with occupant-controlled LED lights. The museum is on course to be LEED-certified.

From an aerial view, the Grand Canopy mimics the texture of surrounding fields.

From an aerial view, the Grand Canopy mimics the texture of surrounding fields.

For more information about the Manetti Shrem Museum, visit the website.