Can an art museum in this economic climate raise $480 million for an ambitious expansion and endowment campaign without a world famous architect like Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano attached to the project?
SFMOMA has just placed a very big bet that it can, by selecting the critically acclaimed but not so commonly known Oslo-based firm Snøhetta — named after a mountain in Norway — as the architect for its large-scale renovation and expansion. The museum’s board of trustees approved the selection on Wednesday; an official announcement is expected Thursday.
The decision was not a complete surprise, as SFMOMA named Snøhetta in a shortlist released in May of four firms officially under consideration, which also included Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and, most established of all, Foster + Partners. But, as SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra admits, Snøhetta is “not terribly well known in our country, and especially not in the West.”
Though Snøhetta has other buildings in development in the U.S., including the National September 11th Memorial Museum entry pavilion at the World Trade Center site in New York, SFMOMA promises to be the firm’s first building on the West Coast.
Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Benezra said a visit made by several trustees to Oslo, part of a grand tour this summer to meet the four finalists and see some of their realized buildings, played a decisive role.
He said the museum’s selection committee was bowled over by Snøhetta's Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo (pictured above), as was he. “When I saw it for the first time, it reminded me of Bilbao — it has that kind of impact,” Benezra said.
“Not only is it a fantastic concept, but it’s also a model of engagement, with people walking inside and outside and on top of the building. And that is what we need: a building of great imagination and excitement that works on a practical level in a specific urban context.”
He also praised the collaborative nature of the firm, which was founded in 1989 after Craig Dykers and Kjetil Thorsen, among other architects, teamed up to enter a competition for the Egyptian Library of Alexandria. They went on to win the contest, build the library and establish a new firm. (The firm has since won the Aga Khan and the Mies van der Rohe awards for architecture, and twice received the World Architecture Award for best cultural building — for its library in Alexandria and for its National Opera and Ballet in Oslo.)
Why didn't SFMOMA go the competition route, inviting leading architects to submit proposals? “I think we said to one another: We’re not selecting a design, we’re selecting a designer,” Benezra said.