The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
- Part of Scala’s innovative Art Spaces series
- Explores the history and design of the unique Asian Art Museum
For years the Asian Art Museum was one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets. It was the largest museum devoted to Asian art in the Western world, but its collection was housed in a wing of another museum in an out-of-the-way location far from the centre of the city. Only a small fraction of the museum’s holdings could be displayed, and as a result few people were aware of the extent and quality of its treasures. In 1997 San Francisco’s mayor, Dianne Feinstein, signed a plan for the restoration of the city’s historic civic centre, one of the finest Beaux-Arts architectural districts in the United States. As part of that plan, the Asian Art Musuem would move into a landmark 1916 building designed by George W. Kelham. This building boasted some fine architectural features, among them a classical facade, an inspiring monumental staircase surrounded by a handsome loggia, a grand hall, and ceilings decorated with floral and geometric patterns. It also presented serious challenges for its transformation to an art musuem: it was dark, confused, fragmented and gloomy. The task of retaining the building’s historic qualities while invigorating it with bold new elements was given to Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. She opened up the old builidng, bringing in a flood of light and providing new orientation. She created a first-floor piazza, introduced massive V-shaped skylights that unify and illuminate the entire structure, added a playful interior-exterior escalator, and created a new suspended floor to display more of the museum’s collection.