Urban Art Museum

de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron: The Copper Killer

The de Young Museum designed by Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron is both underwhelming and overwhelming. The structure’s interiors are underwhelming at best, and there are few spaces on the interior that capture the same spirit that is embodied by the structure’s unique exterior appearance. The exterior form and treatment of the structure’s skin is overwhelming. The materiality, texture and the building’s seductive physique are used to create a building that one cannot help but to stare at. The de Young Museum is simply beautiful, its copper skin is unmatched in scale and execution, but the local and regional ecosystem must pay a great cost for its unique beauty.

History: Do, or Do Not

The original de Young Museum opened in 1895 as a result of the construction that took place in preparation for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, now called Golden Gate Park (see photo gallery below for photo of the original de Young Museum). The original de Young Museum aged poorly and over the years the structure slowly fell apart. Finally in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake severely damaged the building, and plans were made to construct a replacement structure. In 1999 a competition was held for the design of the replacement museum, among the finalist teams were architects Tadao Ando, Cesar Pelli, Antoine Predock, Rafael Viñoly, and Herzog & de Meuron whom were selected as the winners of the competition. From the very beginning the design for the new museum was the subject of controversy and criticism. Its appearance was accused by its critics as being a “huge shed,” an “Internet start-up company,” an “aircraft carrier,” a “Howard Johnson’s of the future,” “atrocious” and “ugly,” but it would not be until construction for the Herzog & de Meuron designed de Young Museum was completed on October 15th 2005 that its critics would be silenced.

The de Young Museum and Golden Gate Park have a unique history, but unlike Renzo Piano’s design for the California Academy of Sciences building, which is sited across from the de Young Museum on the other side of the park, the Swiss architects decided to take a fresh new approach and relieved their selves of such historic constraints. The only similarities between the previous museum and the new one is that they share the same site. It is important to note this, because by ignoring the past and starting fresh, the new design for the de Young Museum becomes timeless. Timeless in that its presence suggest that it has always been and will always be. Entablatures, colonnades and pitched roofs have been omitted, suggesting that the structure is without influence from history and may in fact be a relic from prehistory. Herzog & de Meuron chose to ignore the history of the site in search of something greater, and they found it.

The de Young Museum is not as polished as a Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry design, it is also not as flamboyant. The museum is a ruin by design, and is intentionally clumsy and graceful at the same time. The de Young Museum is a deceptively complex building. Deceptive, because at first glance the structure appears as a simple monolithic form. Like the stepped pyramids of Central America and the pagan temples of antiquity the de Young Museum consists of variable readings: From afar the form is simple, monumental and timeless, but as one approaches the structure the building’s ornamentation begins to reveal itself as the delicate details become apparent only when close to the structure. The structure is beautifully detailed and few exterior conditions are left unresolved. The de Young Museum is devoid of any kind of historic or contemporary style, and until one enters the interiors, it seems that Herzog & de Meuron have come very close to creating a building with the same kind of timelessness as a Louis I. Kahn building or a rare modern masterpiece.

Image 1: The simple forms rest upon the ground as if an extension of the landscape, suggesting that the de Young Museum has always been.

Photo Tour: Take a tour of the de Young Museum by viewing the photo gallery below:

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Materiality, Texture and Pattern:

The copper rainscreen that sheaths the building is the result of an experimentation in using the technology of our time, to create an effect that is reminiscent of the craftsmanship and sensitivity to detail from the past. The mantra of Herzog & de Meuron is to focus on using common materials in an uncommon way. There is no finer example of this than the de Young Museum. Regardless of whether you ‘like’ the design or not, there are few structures in the world that come close to such an orchestration of a singular material in the design of a building’s skin. The skin of the building is impressive because of the technique used by Herzog & de Meuron and their ability to come up with a unique language for a singular material, which is not only beautiful, but resolves nearly all of the museum’s needs.

It is impossible to discuss the texture of the facades of the de Young Museum without talking about pattern, the two are beautifully merged together creating a surface that appears to be disintegrating right before our very eyes. Although the structure appears to be disintegrating, the concept behind the design of the exterior was to create a skin with many layers that would manipulate light similar to natural occurrences in nature. The idea for the texture and patterning of the copper skin came from Jacques Herzog on a site visit he took pictures in Golden Gate Park of the effect of sunlight filtering through the leafy trees of the park. This effect is successfully realized in the built structure, and is evident when viewing the building from virtually any vantage point.

The construction of the building is nothing short of a construction marvel. A computerized engineering system enabled the 7,602 panels that make up the skin to be individually cut, punched and embossed. A total of 950,000 pounds of copper was used, making it the largest copper-clad building in the world, which presents many environmental problems left unaddressed by the designers, which is discussed below. Another problem with the design of the copper structure is that the canopy that was meant to cover the outdoor cafe, leaks copper dust and tainted copper runoff onto patron’s food and cafe furniture. A permanent temporary structure has been placed under the canopy, and serves as a blemish on the structure’s exterior, see photo gallery.

Diagramming de Young:

Although the structure appears simplistic, one begins to understand that the simple moves that are executed in the design are embedded with information that may not be apparent at first glance. The structure can be reduced to two primary elements, vertical and horizontal. The horizontal responds to the order of the park and the gridded system that remains dominant from 1894, which is represented in Diagram 1 by cooler colors. The vertical rises out of the order of the past, but responds to the larger order of the city grid, represented by warmer colors, because the 144 ft tower connects the museum to the larger context of the city. The simple architectural tactic of twisting the tower to align the two orders is an example of the amount of skill used by Herzog & de Meuron in the building’s finite ornamentation. The twist aligns the tower’s upper floors with the San Francisco street grid, visually locking the design into the distant skyline. The courtyards serve both to bring the park into the museum and to assist with wayfinding.

Diagram 1: The order of the plan for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 and the order of the city are resolved by the simple twisting of the tower, which ornaments this connection. There is something poetic about the major move of the structure connecting the park to the city. The red lines correspond to the overall city grid of San Francisco, and the blue lines respond to the regulating lines of the park. From afar the tower appears to be conforming to the city, and when viewing the museum up close it appears to conform to the park, yet when park patrons look at the tower the influence of the city is present whether they know it or not.

Diagram 2: There are three primary circulation routes that connect one side of the park to the other. All of these paths terminate into the de Young Museum, but what is interesting is that the de Young Museum aligns with the outer edge of the eastern axis, while the terminating paths appear at first glance to be random. The positioning of the museum becomes clearer in Diagram 4.

Diagram 3: The fissures that are highlighted in red, are used to denote entry points into the museum. The fissures breakup the southwestern and northeastern facades into a tripartite arrangement, and where the masses are separated nature is allowed to flow into the building, and at other times create large than life terrarreums. The museum reads as if a solid mass that is being eroded away, and at others it reads as if three solid masses that flow in and out of eachother. Regardless of the reading, the ordering lines that shape the mass do not flow into the site, and in plan the structure appears rigid and confined. If the building were allowed to flow into the site, the same way nature is permitted to flow into the structure, the building would appear more harmonious with the site.

Diagram 4: The ordering system that controls the location of the building is highly sophisticated. The order of the city at the macro level is the key controlling factor in the twisted position of the observation tower, as depicted in Diagram 1. The tower itself is controlled by multiple complex relationships on the site, which are not apparent at first glance, see Diagram 2. Rather than forcing the building to accept the order of the existing plaza, Herzog & de Meuron manipulate the the existing order with a very creative solution. The three primary routes of circulation that connect one side of the park to the other, are denied, the designer of the park places an emphasis on the perpendicular axis with the placement of three circular courts. Herzog & de Meuron use the circular courts as points of reference. The centroid of the tower is triangulated by transposing a line parallel to the city grid and one parallel to the park grid on the two subordinate circular courts. The intersection of these two transposed lines is the centroid of the tower, again the tower connects the city to the park. The regulating line parallel to the city grid, becomes the main axis of the museum. The procession along this axis takes a visitor into the interior yet exterior entry court, then through the main entry doors, where patrons are greated by the ticketing counter, and are then given the option to buy a ticket and view the musuem or bipass the ticketing counter and head directly to the heart of the tower.

There is yet another regulating line that controls the placement of the structure, and that is the transposed line that is projected outward from the central circular court. When traveling along this route toward the de Young Museum there is a point at which the regulating lines intersect, which happens to be where the entry pad is located and along the sidewalk that flanks the street.

Diagram 5: The copper roof is highly visible from the de Young Museum’s observation tower. Herzog & de Meuron wisely chose to design the roof in a way that is consistant with the rest of the museum. The seams of the copper roof create an interesting pattern, which evokes images of a terrain or a topographic survey,the lines suggest that the building emerged from the site. Unfortunately these roof contours do not engage the site, and end at the limits of the building. A series of horizontal lines continue in the front yard of the museum, but these lines do not engage the structure and are not as active as the lines that pattern the roof.

Diagram 6:The fissures that divide up the mass create courtyards, over-sized terrariums and also mark the entry points into the structure, but where these fissures end and the masses rejoin, Herzog & de Meuron have chosen to detail the same condition differently in each case.

This clever manipulation of reference points and regulating lines continues throughout the structure, and if permitted more time I would love to analyze the structure further producing even more diagrams, but I am afraid I that must come at a later date or I’ll never finish this article. For more information, diagrams and photos, I strongly recommend reading: The de Young in the 21st Century: A Museum by Herzog & de Meuron. Although the design is beautiful, that is only the first part of the article. The rest of the article deals with the sustainable issues associated with using copper in architectural design, specifically at the de Young Museum, where the quantity of copper used is unprecedented.

The Copper Killer:

If Renzo Piano’s Academy of Sciences building is one of the most sustainable structures in San Francisco, then the de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron is one of the most anti-sustainable buildings in San Francisco. Ironically the two structures sit directly across from each other. What makes a building anti-sustainable? Anti-sustainable buildings are structures which are poisoning the environment, not in the same way that many treehuggers argue that all modern buildings do, but anti-sustainable structures are super polluters that are far more dangerous than their sustainable counterparts are good.

The most beautiful feature of the de Young Museum is its copper skin, is also its most deadly. Copper runoff is a significant problem in cities like Palo Alto and San Francisco. Palo Alto has completed a significant amount of research on the topic of copper runoff, and this research will be used as a basis for determining the amount of copper runoff created by the de Young Museum. Since Palo Alto is only 30 miles away from San Francisco, it should be sufficient in illustrating the magnitude of the problem caused by Herzog & de Meuron’s design for the de Young Museum.

Copper runoff is such a severe problem in Palo Alto that an in January of 2003, Palo Alto issued an Ordinance that Prohibits Copper Roofing Materials. Below are two of the most interesting facts found in the document:

  • The amount of copper released per year from copper roofs in the RWQCP (Regional Water Quality Control Plant) service area is estimated to be greater than the annual industrial copper discharges to the RWQCP.
  • An incremental increase of 1000 square feet of copper roofing can lead to, by itself, a copper concentration in a creek during an average rainfall that equals the chronic toxicity criteria established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The above ordinance references a document entitled Architectural Uses of Copper: An Evaluation of Storm Water Pollution Loads and BMPs. This document discusses the results of a study that examines the impact of copper on stormwater pollution. The study was completed by the City of Palo Alto’s Regional Water Quality Control Plant. In this study it is found that approximately .1 grams of copper is released per year, per square foot of copper roofing in the Palo Alto area, which I reverse engineered from the examples in Exhibit 13 of the Architectural Uses of Copper document. Exhibit 14 of the Architectural Uses of Copper document also estimates that approximately 298 lbs of copper are released from roofs, gutters, and downspouts in the Palo Alto RWQCP service area each year.

.1 grams of copper runoff per year, per square foot of copper does not sound like a large amount of copper, but wait until you see how much copper Herzog & de Meuron actually used. Copper is used everywhere by Herzog & de Meuron, covering a roof area of around 139,930 sf, this number is significantly less than the façade which is composed of approximately 193,750 sf of copper. That is a total of 333,680 sf of copper! Why is this number so important? Copper runoff is a function of rainfall and surface area of copper. Using the data from Exhibit 13 this equates to 33, 368 grams of copper runoff per year or 73.5 lbs of copper runoff per year! The de Young Museum accounts for 25% of the copper pollution of all of Palo Alto, which is a truly frightening statistic. The above numbers for roof and façade copper coverage were taken from the de Young Museum project profile on the TECU website. Currently there is no system in place to remove copper from the runoff before it is discharged into the environment.

Copper and the Environment:

Water runoff from copper surfaces should not be a deterrent from using copper in your designs, and there are a number of strategies outlined in the document entitled Architectural Uses of Copper, but what remains unknown is the ability of vegetation to permanently capture copper from runoff over time. It is well documented that other harmful metals like lead remain in the soils that absorbs its runoff for many years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) warns that structures with exterior surfaces that were sealed with lead paint have contaminated the adjacent soils and that the only way to correct the problem is through remediation. The same is also true of soils that contain high concentrations of copper. Ingesting large quantities of copper can have serious health problems. One of the best websites that I have found on the internet that outlines the effects and issues associated with copper toxicity in drinking water is found in an outline for a course at Guilford College. Another valuable document distributed by the EPA is the Lead and Copper Rule: A Quick Reference Guide, which outlines health complications caused by copper exposure and serves as a quick reference for exposure levels that can be harmful.

Location & Contact Information:

If you ever find yourself in the San Francisco area, this is a must see structure. Don’t forget to check the website for Free Museum Days.

Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Telephone: (415) 750-3600