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Art museum: Modern or McArchitecture?

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Entry to the new de Young Museum is gained via a stone walkway cleaved by a not-so-subtle crack.

Far from being a contractor's goof, the fissure in Drawn Stone is artist Andy Goldsworthy's nod to the elder de Young's demise at the hands of the 1989 earthquake.

But it also is a fitting metaphor: The reborn de Young, which opens Oct. 15, is eliciting shudders of (mostly) excitement from this city's arts community, which privately paid for the modernist Goliath to the tune of $190 million.

"I'd like to think this museum shows we are now in a league with other sophisticated arts cities around the country," says Dede Wilsey, president of the city's Fine Arts Museums, which also includes the Legion of Honor. "It's all about the art. Sure, we wanted a striking building. But not one like (Frank Gehry's) Guggenheim in Bilbao (Spain), which would be a draw in and of itself."

News flash: This building shrieks "Look at me!" like a cable car hitting the brakes on a downhill run.

The new de Young is the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss duo who revolutionized London's Tate Modern.

"Our goal here was to give equal importance to visitors, nature and art," Herzog says. But did it really have to take the shape of an undulating Mayan temple whose perforated copper sheathing will oxidize over time? "You can always be more conventional," Herzog quips. "That's not why we were picked."

Indeed, while their San Francisco project enjoys a smaller footprint than its predecessor (the old de Young was an imposing 1895 structure whose stodgy bearing contrasted with its lush Golden Gate Park surroundings), its striking form and twisting nine-story tower guarantee it as much scrutiny as the eclectic art housed within.

Throughout the three-level, 293,000-square-foot museum, lines are constantly in motion. Ceiling heights seem to change from gallery to gallery, as do wall angles. Even stone floors downstairs and wood upstairs summon an in-the-treetops feeling.

The de Young's varied collection -- masks from New Guinea rub shoulders with blown-glass installations -- is well-served by the changing interior. By giving each exhibit its own space, visitors are spared the museum fatigue that often plagues older, boxier repositories. "It's not just a building with extravagant forms, it's a marvelous environment for reviewing art, and that's a difficult trick today," says Robert Ivy, editor of Architectural Record, who recently toured the de Young. "It's a sensitive building."

But in some civic quarters, enthusiasm for the new de Young has been muted. Twice voters rejected bond measures that would have paid for the building, which led director Wilsey to defiantly take on the fundraising herself. Stories are legion of her dancing her way up to well-heeled patrons and coming away with checks as large as$10 million. ("It's true," Wilsey says. "I just find it's easier asking for big money. Things go much faster.")

As the project gathered steam, a legal effort was mounted to try to derail construction. Calling the design "internationalist McArchitecture," project management consultant and leading anti-de Young crusader Joe Fusco wrote in a 1999 SF Weekly piece that placing the angular, metallic structure "in a beaux-arts concourse is about as relevant as a screen door on a submarine." But the work went ahead.

Today, curiosity has overtaken criticism in many camps. "The old building had outlived its useful life," says Charles Chase, executive director of San Francisco Architectural Heritage. "There really wasn't that much nostalgia for it per se."

There just may be a chance, as Wilsey hopes, that the focus will return to the art. The de Young kicks its doors open with a series of commissioned works (including the 31-by-30-foot Gerhard Richter work Strontium, composed of 130 prints mounted on aluminum), along with a King Tut-like exhibition dedicated to the treasures belonging to Hatshepsut, a queen who ruled Egypt around 1479 B.C.

If the new de Young still offends, Wilsey says "there's always the Legion of Honor," a stately place that evokes the old de Young.

But the truth is, it might be best to get used to the bold statements made by this new museum. Because right next door to the de Young, a new California Academy of Sciences is rising. Designed by Pritzker winner Renzo Piano, it will boast an undulating "living roof" exploding with plant life.

When it comes to museums, clearly this city is not looking back.

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