By geography, economy, even postal delimitation, La Jolla, in California, differs from the city of San Diego, of which it is nevertheless a constituent district. Located 20 km north of the city center, La Jolla is a breathtaking place, known for its mild climate, sparkling sunshine, sandy beaches and steep sandstone cliffs that raise the village above the sea. ‘Pacific Ocean. It is also home to the Salk Institute designed by Louis Kahn, a magnet for architectural pilgrimage if ever there was one and certainly one of the best examples of making the most of a site of outstanding natural beauty. This begs the question, what do you do when you stand on the edge of eternity? The answer: Contemplate it.
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), whose founding building is also in La Jolla, has never enjoyed the same prestige. (There’s another location downtown, a kunsthalle-style exhibit space in the old Santa Fe Depot station baggage building.) Although it’s, like Salk, perched on a precipice in the Above the waves, the museum has never fully embraced its enviable location. The only exception to this (and this is a big exception) is 1˚2˚3˚4˚, a 1997 installation by Robert Irwin that cuts three square voids in the tinted windows of a west-facing rear gallery, offering panoramic views on the seaside. Irwin’s work makes the viewer aware of the phenomenology of light and the impact of any mediation of it. Through the tinted windows, the ocean and the palm trees and the walkers on the shore appear subdued. Look through the holes, however, and you are met with the pure photons of our raging star and the brackish flavor of the sea breeze, slapping you in the face like a wet fish.
In 2014, MCASD hired Selldorf Architects of New York to renovate and expand its La Jolla headquarters. Catching up with Salk was definitely part of the equation, as was adding enough space to showcase the museum’s impressive permanent collection and making the institution a more inviting and accessible place for everyone. MCASD’s first home, when it was founded in 1941 as The Art Center in La Jolla, was the former residence of Ellen Browning Scripps. (one of the city’s greatest philanthropists), a 1916 home designed by famed modernist architect Irving Gill. Over the years the house underwent a number of renovations and expansions, including several by the local architectural firm Mosher Drew from 1950 to 1980, which added an auditorium which housed the La Jolla Music Society, among others programs. In 1996 Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) added a gift shop, cafe, lobby known as Axline Court and two colonnades of short plump Doric columns topped with steel pergolas that faced at the Gill house and shaded the entrance. .
When Selldorf’s design was unveiled in 2018, there was a huge outcry from the architectural community. The proposal removed VSBA’s colonnades, thus exposing Gill House, and cut a bay from its addition to make way for a new hall. Two years prior, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown had been recognized, perhaps belatedly, with the AIA Gold Medal, the first time the award had been given to a couple. At the time, postmodern architecture was experiencing something of a renaissance, especially among young people who, Oedipal or not, sought to counteract the blandness of the neomodern moment. Several screeds against the Selldorf design have been published (including in this publication) alleging violation of this or any other VSBA fabric, but the argument may have been overstated. As important as Venturi and Scott Brown are to the history and discourse of architecture, they did not build their reputation on designing museums.
While objections to Selldorf’s proposal didn’t derail it, they did motivate Annabelle Selldorf to contact Scott Brown. The two are said to have struck up a friendly correspondence, a good thing considering Selldorf is also updating London’s National Gallery, including its VS-BA designed Sainsbury’s Wing. And looking at the work done at MCASD (and I confess I’ve never visited its previous incarnations), it’s hard to find much to complain about.
Selldorf’s approach is, as his company’s architectural statement asserts, a “harmonious contrast.” The Gill House and VSBA Addition are white stucco on the exterior with rectangular windows and large arched openings. The Selldorf expansion is made of panel-formed concrete and travertine with large rectangular windows and aluminum brise-soleils. Its varied colors closely resemble the sandstone cliffs of La Jolla. The Mosher Drew-designed auditorium, now the Strauss Main Gallery, juts out above this assemblage, its extra height rising well above what current zoning permits. Seen from the ocean side, where it spills over the cliff, the accretion of MCASD pieces appears as a condensed version of a seaside village, which, all things considered, is appropriate for its location within a seaside village.
Inside, the existing travertine floors give way to concrete and maple wood floors in the addition. But this, along with the varying smells, is the only indication that you are moving from old to new. Otherwise, the spaces follow each other more or less harmoniously. The fact that each gallery is a different size, and often a different shape (the trapezoidal galleries mark the collision of Selldorf spaces with those in situ), means that the accreted nature of the building never really becomes too apparent or anyway, a problem. This strain will certainly give MCASD curators plenty of possibilities to play with.
Most notable is the proliferation of windows and daylight throughout the project, which is taken to an extreme. On the Prospect Street side, large display cases overlook the village, no doubt part of the effort to make the museum more inviting and accessible. To the south, a full-height, slightly angled window exposes the beach shack vernacular of the neighboring Scripps Inn. And to the west, of course, large panes of glazing open the interior to the mesmerizing expanse of the Pacific. It’s not Salk, but it’s not bad. What a pleasure to walk in a museum so radically open to its environment! Looking outside and having your eyes cleaned by the daylight and the sight of the wind whipping your palms is a real antidote to the exhaustion that can set in after too much time spent in an island temple of art. I wonder if the windows will remain as open as they were during the press tour. After all, daylight – even daylight passing through advanced glazing – has its degrading effects on works of art. Being able to look inside from the street is also a boon, as it seems reasonable to suspect that seeing what’s there will break down some of the more intimidating aspects of the museum experience, making MCASD easier to enter than your average art fortress.
On the other hand, La Jolla itself isn’t the most accessible or inviting place. Locals, in fact, boast of its inaccessibility. “There are only two entrances and exits,” one of them told me. And so, while the architecture has done its job admirably, it’s hard not to come away with a twinge of irony. As with the sculpture that has long held a place of honor at the front of MCASD, Jonathan Borofsky’s shoutout to workers everywhere, Hammering Man, one wonders what this highly accessible museum in the Beverly Hills is doing. from San Diego.
Design architect: Selldorf Architects
Executive Architect: PLA
Reference architect: Alcorn and Benton
Location: La Jolla, California
General contractor : Building level 10
Site managers: Gafcon, RH Weatherford Company
Structural design engineer: Guy Nordenson and Associates
Designated structural engineer: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
European deputy : Buro Happold
Landscape architect: PLA
Civil engineer: PLA
Lighting: Renfro Design Group