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SFMOMA chooses architect for $250-million expansion: Norwegian firm Snøhetta

July 21, 2010 |  9:17 pm

SFMOMA_Snohetta_03_Norwegian_National Opera
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.

SFMOMA does not expect to release initial designs for the museum until spring 2011. In the meantime, Benezra is finalizing an agreement with San Francisco for the museum to build a new fire station  on museum-owned land, in exchange for obtaining the deed for property behind the museum that currently houses a functioning but outdated fire station, which would be razed for the expansion.

SFMOMA’s expansion would also extend to a neighboring lot at 670 Howard St. that it already owns and include a renovation of the museum’s existing Third Street building designed in the early 1990s by Mario Botta. The idea is for all facilities, new and old, to be physically connected and experienced more or less as one.

Benezra says that the museum was already seriously thinking about expansion in 2007, before it inked an agreement last year to house and care for the blockbuster collection of Don and Doris Fisher, heavy on Pop Art and Minimalism. Limited exhibition space and scattered office space were driving factors, he says.

“When Chuck Schwab became chair of the board in 2007, he asked me what we really need to achieve. I said the next step is for us to have more space to display our collection without sacrificing our exhibition program, which had grown to become world-class,” Benezra said.  According to Benezra, the permanent collection by that time had 26,000 objects, more than doubling its size since 1995, when the Botta building opened.

The museum estimates today that it will need $250 million on the design and construction side, as well as $230 million to boost the museum’s endowment (currently hovering around $100 million), making for a $480-million capital campaign.

Of this sum, Benezra says the museum already has “$250 million securely pledged from board leadership.”

Did the Schwab family provide most of this funding? Benezra neither confirmed nor denied this rumor, afloat in the art world for months. “The money is coming from board leadership,” he says. “By mutual agreement of the donors, we are keeping to a more general description.”

--Jori Finkel


Art review: 'Calder to Warhol, Introducing the Fisher Collection' at SFMOMA

Familiar list of architects for SFMOMA expansion

Image: Snøhetta's National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, photo by Jens Passoth. Courtesy Snøhetta and SFMOMA.