San Francisco’s Museum Modern of Art reopens in a spectacular expanded structure

On May 14, the San Francisco Museum of Modern of Art (SFMOMA) reopened as the largest institution of its kind in the United States. Since it was founded in 1935, in this loveliest of U.S. cities, the museum has been a shining beacon of contemporary art on America’s West Coast, showcasing seminal works by the likes of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Ansel Adams.

The SFMOMA made international headlines in 1995, when it unveiled its building on Third Street, in San Francisco’s edgy South of Market neighborhood. Designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the monumental five-story structure, constructed in geometric forms and pre-industrial materials, including stone, wood and brick, instantly became a national landmark, particularly due to its distinctive circular turret, featuring zebra-like black-and-white stripes.

Less than 15 years later, the SFMOMA outgrew its Botta-designed landmark and announced plans for a major expansion, to be helmed by Oslo-based architecture firm Snøhetta. The museum shut down in 2013 to initiate its expansion, and reopened this year in May, tripling its initial size. “This expansion enables us to tap more fully into the energy all around us, in a region known for its special creativity and beauty, while greatly increasing the presentations of a collection that includes remarkable concentrations of artworks that can be found nowhere else,” says SFMOMA director Neal Benezra.

Snøhetta’s spectacular new building creates a more welcoming and open SFMOMA, as it rises up behind the Botta building and covers an entire block, from Minna Street to Howard Street. Two separate entrances beckon visitors to the free ground-floor exhibition space, where Richard Serra’s powerful sculpture Sequence reigns supreme, while a third entrance on Minna Street leads to the Koret Education Center, the Phyllis Wattis Theater and the White Box performance space. All three entrances then converge at the second-floor Helen and Charles Schwab Hall, an engaging space that offers views of an outdoor sculpture terrace and a lush vertical garden. Other highlights from the new expansion include the Pritzker Center for Photography — the largest space in a U.S. museum dedicated to photography — and the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Galleries, featuring selections from one of the top contemporary art collections in the world.


The façade of the structure, which is made from 700 fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels placed on a curtain wall system, is inspired by the dramatic fog and waters that characterise San Francisco Bay. As the light changes, the panels themselves seem to shift in appearance — they’re constantly being reinvented, much like the city of San Francisco itself.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 128-130.