Beginning in the early 1960s, the University of California at Davis became home to a thriving academic art scene, with influential figures such as Wayne Thiebaud, known for his colorful paintings of everyday objects, and Robert Arneson, father of the Funk movement, among its diverse faculty. In recent years, the university has sought to reignite the creative energy of that era. A 2013 competition for the school’s first purpose-built art museum— previously, work was exhibited in a handful of galleries in existing buildings—called for a structure that would be a magnet on the sprawling campus. But the budget was extremely tight, and the client mandated a contractor-led design-build team.
Paired with contractor Whiting-Turner, architects SO-IL, based in New York, and the San Francisco office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) offered an unconventional solution. Rather than create a presence with building height, as the other shortlisted entries did, they proposed a one-story structure with a dramatic canopy reaching far beyond the building’s footprint.
The strategy—which also would save money on elevators and egress stairs—won SO-IL and BCJ the competition for what would become the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. But the design of that critical overhang had to be developed over the next couple of years. “The canopy is essentially Pole Dance made solid,” says Florian Idenburg, who founded SO-IL with his wife, Jing Liu. Idenburg is referring to the duo’s 2010 installation at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, where a large net supported by a series of pivoting poles covered that museum’s courtyard—an exploration, according to the firm, of multisensory environments rather than finite forms.
At Davis, the inspiration for the canopy’s simple construction and sensuous design came from the patchwork of cultivated plots of land in the surrounding fields. The architects beautifully re-created that tapestry in metal with the orthogonal sections of the canopy, interrupting it with sweeping curves, a reference to the Sacramento River that meanders across the farmlands.
Initial ideas for the canopy, which reaches as high as 34 feet and dips as low as 12, called for a steel frame and subframe connecting perforated sheets of aluminum. But the design team determined it would be more cost-effective, and indeed more interesting, to give dimension to the aluminum and allow it to span the main frame. This approach also eliminated the need for the secondary steel.
The resulting triangular infill beams are dense in some sections and sparse in others, casting an array of intriguing shadow patterns onto the walls and ground beneath. “We were able to dial it up or dial it down as we wanted,” explains Michael Ra, principal in charge at Front, the project’s canopy and glazing consultant. Idenburg and Ra have developed custom metal solutions together before: on SO-IL’s Kukje Gallery in Seoul, which is draped in a blanket of stainless-steel rings, and on the expanded aluminum mesh that clads the New Museum in New York, completed when Idenburg was with SANAA.
While the aluminum at the New Museum was anodized, a corrosion-resistant, marine-grade alloy was used for the beams at the Davis site. This allowed them to be left uncoated, exposing the natural material. The three-dimensional treatment of the aluminum, coupled with its raw metallic finish, gives the canopy a visual softness. “There is the hard box with a more delicate veil,” explains Idenburg.
The hard box, of course, is the building itself. More like a pavilion, the highly transparent 30,000-square-foot container, whose roof follows the arc of the canopy, features three main areas—for galleries, offices, and classrooms—which pinwheel around a central lobby and interior courtyard. Its exterior walls feature elegantly corrugated precast-concrete panels, some rising to 32 feet, and straight and curving glass, the biggest sheet of which measures 10 by 14 feet.
Like SANAA’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, which Idenburg and Ra also worked on together, the glazing here is mullionless. Since the span is taller than at Toledo, the glass is also slightly thicker, with two lites of 3⁄4 inch apiece separated by a clear interlayer. “Using a principle similar to a glass balustrade, we clamped the laminated panels at the bottom so they essentially cantilever off the ground,” explains Ra.
The 8,000 square feet of galleries feature polished-concrete floors. With works on paper comprising nearly three-quarters of the pieces on show, the spaces are entirely lit by LEDs; occupancy sensors turn the lights on and off to preserve power. An off-site PV array satisfies some of the energy demand. The building is on track to achieve LEED Platinum certification and would be one of only a handful of U.S. museums to do so.
Whether one approaches the campus from the freeway or just strolls through it, the $30 million museum is a sight to behold. Architects often talk about how constraints can encourage creativity. This is a vivid example of a tight budget leading to truly innovative design. More than that, SO-IL and BCJ have designed a building appropriate for the size and scope of UC Davis’s collection and audience, avoiding the costly mistake UC Berkeley made with its art museum and film archives, which opened last January. The latter spent nearly four times as much on what was primarily a renovation of an existing building. At UC Davis, the university certainly got its money’s worth—and then some.