Asian Art Museum San Francisco

Taking a Building Back to It’s Roots in order to Create a Model Museum for the 21st Century

Since 2015, wHY’s four workshops — IDEAS, BUILDINGS, GROUNDS and OBJECTS — have worked with the Asian Art Museum and numerous city agencies to renovate and expand the institution’s presence and relevance locally, nationally, and internationally.

The re-design of the 1890’s public library realizes a long-held master plan vision to repurpose the building into a model museum for the 21st century. The Asian Art Museum “campus” comes at a time when ancient and contemporary art from the Eastern hemisphere has newfound appreciation and cultural value. The Museum’s program and design also aim to redefine and render special cultural values and contributions within the contemporary world of globalized collaborations and also conflicts.

wHY’s BUILDING, IDEAS, and GROUNDS workshops collaborated on the master plan focusing on key points of intervention to revitalize the existing Beaux Arts building while at the same time finding opportunities for the museum to expand its programming in its goal of broadening the museum’s appeal and relevance. One of the museum’s biggest challenges was a lack of a contiguous large special exhibition space that prevented the museum from exhibiting a variety of shows.

To significantly improve the museum’s capabilities, wHY designed a new 13,000 square foot pavilion sitting on top of an existing street level service wing at Hyde street creating a new identity and public façade which complements the main Larkin street Beaux Arts facade facing City Hall.

The new façade reinterprets the rustication of the Beaux Arts building’s granite façade with a three-dimensional faceted terra cotta tile that stays within the modules and datum lines of the existing facades while remaining distinct. To address the city’s desire for more transparency and activation of the street, a large panoramic window, also sharing the faceted geometry of the terra cotta tiles, wraps the façade giving visitors an opportunity to relax in the lounge while viewing their surrounding views and UN plaza while allowing pedestrians outside views of the art and activity within the museum.

The entrance to the museum however remains at Larkin street and wHY has worked to improve circulation and the visitor experience by re-establishing the original parti of the Beaux Arts building and refocusing the emphasis on the central Grand Stair. The axis starting at the entrance leads pass newly designed admission desks, up the stairs, through an historic hall and culminating in the new art terrace. Developed through close collaboration between the BUILDING and GROUNDS workshops this new outdoor space combines roof terrace with a contemporary sculpture gallery.

A simple, flexible yet inviting terrace, it provides a new opportunity for the museum to showcase large works of art and to host outdoor gatherings, movie screenings and dance performances. Custom benches that double as art platforms or small stages provide ample seating for visitors and school groups. A café with flexible movable tables and chairs lend a lively urban air to the terrace. An open edge along Hyde Street encourages visitors to peer over the rail and observe the street life below. The terrace is a link between distant gallery wings and enables for more fluid movement through the museum. As well, it provides visitors with a space in which to take a break from the galleries. Finally it adds to the diverse spaces of Civic Center a gathering space where people can relax and enjoy art and their surroundings.

At the ground floor, the South Court atrium welcomes visitors with a central information desk and wayfinding displays developed between BUILDINGS and OBJECTS workshops that both activate the space and guide visitors. The Koret education center is now visible from the atrium with new double-sided display cases puncturing the once solid wood wall creating a window into the classrooms. Interior finishes will be enhanced in the classrooms to allow for secondary use as a lecture space with updated AV equipment.

The north atrium leads to the entrance to the new pavilion lobby connected to a new freight elevator that greatly enhances the museum’s operations and logistics as well as enabling the display of large artworks and exhibitions. The lobby, which also functions as gallery and staging area, leads into the pavilion gallery that will be one of the largest column free gallery spaces in San Francisco. Flexibility for changing exhibitions being key, wHY designed support for a variety of lighting, power, and partition configurations while maintaining a clean aesthetic and maximized ceiling heights. The gallery leads to the Lounge where visitors can pause to relax for a moment of reflection and orientation in the city.

After visiting the exhibit, visitors exit into the south court atrium where they can take the existing escalator to the upper floors where one can also access the new art terrace or see new displays of the museum’s masterpiece artworks in the permanent collection. New casework, furniture, and finishes draw the visitors attention while presenting the artworks with new interpretive elements allowing visitors to see the art and indeed the museum in a new light.

wHY’s transformation of the Asian Art Museum, much like the museum’s own mission, reimagines the art experience from many perspectives, both from the inside outward and from the outside inwards.

  • Workshops
    Buildings, Ideas, Landscape, Objects
  • Client
    Asian Art Museum San Francisco
  • Location
    San Francisco, CA, USA
  • Area
    28,000 sq. ft. additional space, 63,000 sq. ft. space renovation
  • Role
    Master Planning, Exhibition Design (IDEAS), Design & Executive Architect (BUILDINGS), Landscape Architect (GROUNDS), Furniture, Millwork (OBJECTS)
  • Team
    Forell Elsesser (Structural), Interface Engineering (MEP), Flux Studio (Lighting), Shen Milsom & Wilke (AV/Acoustics), Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (Enclosure & Fire Life Safety), KPFF (Civil), Lerch Bates (Elevator), Page & Turnbull (Entitlements/Historic Preservation)
  • Scope
    Museum Master Planning, Museum Addition (Special Exhibition Gallery, Lobby, Roof Terrace, Freight Elevator, Lounge, Café, Support Spaces), Renovation (Classrooms, Lobby Millwork, Custom Furniture, Gallery Upgrades), and Exhibition Design (Masterpiece Displays, Casework, Gallery Renovation, Gallery Furniture)

Related Works