The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Over a five-year period, WHY has been working to comprehensively update and transform the spaces of the Asian Art Museum. The existing galleries have been redesigned to highlight the museum’s world-class collection, and circulation and facilities have been reconfigured for greater efficiency and flow. The addition of the Akiko Yamazaki & Jerry Yang Pavilion and East West Bank Art Terrace will radically expand the museum’s capacity for special exhibitions and innovative programming, amplifying the institution’s presence locally, nationally, and internationally.

Key info
Design Architect
Executed by WHY Architecture Workshop Inc.
San Francisco, CA, USA
  • Completed 2020
  • 12,000 sq. ft. addition; 37,000 sq. ft. renovation
Masterplanning, Architect, Exhibition Design, Landscape Architect, Furniture, Millwork

Located in San Francisco’s historic Civic Center, the Asian Art Museum is housed in a historic Beaux Arts building which originally served as a public library. The spaces were adapted in the early 2000s by the renowned postmodernist architect Gae Aulenti – best known for designing the Musee d’Orsay in Paris – and WHY was initially commissioned to update the museum’s existing galleries. However after collaborative assessment of the museum’s needs and ambitions, the project expanded into an extensive rethinking of the museum spaces as a whole, including adding the new 13,000 ft pavilion which will enable the museum to host large-scale special exhibitions, new media, and outdoor sculpture.


To ensure that the museum remained open throughout the 5-year renovation, WHY applied its signature strategy of acupuncture architecture. Working closely with the museum team and community stakeholders, we identified a series of pressure-points for architectural interventions. By taking an iterative and highly localized approach, we were able to preserve the character of the historic building while allowing for greater integration and flow between the different areas of the museum.

One of the most important changes to the existing building was the reconfiguration of the 31 galleries which house the permanent collection. The spaces have been adapted for ease of navigation, and key masterpieces from the collection are highlighted with new interactive displays, specialist casework, and lighting elements which encourage active viewing and provide space for contemplation.


The new pavilion, clad in innovative terracotta tiling, is one of the largest column-free exhibition spaces in San Francisco. The faceted tilework is a sensitive yet striking reinterpretation of the rusticated granite on the original façade, and the pavilion as a whole fits within the datum lines of historic structure. The roof of the building provided the opportunity for an outdoor art terrace, and the WHY Landscape Workshop were instrumental in developing a program which could accommodate contemporary sculpture, events, and performances. The terrace also generates an important circulation solution, allowing for an intuitive transition between the historic building and the contemporary pavilion. The sustainability of the new spaces was also a primary consideration; the museum is certified LEED Gold, and the museum as a whole is categorized LEED EBOM.

"Working with Kulapat and the design team at WHY was an ideal experience for a cultural organization because they conceive of themselves as partners from the very start—they listen to you, and in turn, you learn from them. The seamless flow of the experience is one of the most important aspects of the transformation project, creating meaningful encounters with significant works of historic and contemporary art."

Jay Xu
Director of the Asian Art Museum

Improved circulation in the entrance hall and courts invites multiple intuitive flows of movement to different areas of the building. Key facilities have been renovated, and gathering spaces such as the lobby and the Koret Education Suites are enhanced with custom furniture designed by the WHY Objects Workshop.

Overall, the new spaces are characterized by WHY’s commitment to a more inclusive and accessible museum experience. The new pavilion is designed to be actively porous to its urban context; the large display windows of the new Wilbur Gallery showcase exhibitions to the world outside, and the roof terrace acts as a platform for showing large-scale murals and sculpture. At the street level, an art wall is a space for new work by local artists, communicating the museum’s civic role within the city and its mission to inspire cross-cultural understanding.

Structural Engineer
  • Forell/Elsesser Engineering
MEP Engineer
  • Interface Engineering
Civil Engineer
  • KPFF
Historic Preservation Consultant
  • Page & Turnbull
Lighting Design
  • Flux Studio
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