Manetti Shrem Museum of Art / SO-IL
Several gallery spaces knitted together by a singular, sculptural roof plane, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art by New York practice SO-IL represents both a new direction for flexible museum design, and an interesting case for architecture’s possibilities in the digital age.
As a practice, the work of SO-IL is defined by a light touch. The buildings produced by the New York office indicate a clear preoccupation with material lightness, complex surface geometries, and subtle gradients between spaces. Perhaps the breakthrough moment came with the Pole Dance installation for the 2010 MoMA Ps1 Young Architects Program. A chain-link mesh canopy supported by a forest of wavering pillars over a sea of colorful exercise balls, the project combined a sense of playfulness with simple, repetitive, and almost everyday elements. The stroke of genius here was in the Dance – rather than experience the installation from a fixed perspective, visitors were invited to bounce, swing, and play within the canvas the architects had created for them. In this sense, the project could loosely be understood as a framework for interaction, or a series of opportunities for visitors – a verb rather than a noun. Six years later, these predispositions are present in the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, the office’s first major built work.
Like many architecture projects, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art was born out of competition. Beating Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and fellow New Yorkers WORKac, SO-IL impressed judges with their attempt to “turn the museum inside out”. The project was to be the first contemporary art museum in Davis – both for the city and the university campus. Envisioned as an “art museum for the 20th century”, a new cultural hub for the campus, combining galleries with outdoor exhibition spaces, learning facilities, and an extension of the public realm. The intent was that the museum should exist as an experience, a lived institution, active in the community. In the words of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi herself, “all who enter this museum will become students again”.
The most immediately obvious feature of the museum is its roof. A lightweight patchwork of slim aluminum beams, the roof knits the varied program of the building together into a singular, coherent whole. Described by the architects as a reference to the agricultural fields surrounding the UC Davis Campus, the roof simultaneously defines the extent of the museum while blurring the threshold between the museum and the city at its borders. A loose, informal gesture, the roof reaches out into the public realm and draws visitors inside.
Rather than a strict sequence, the building’s interior spaces are porous and loosely defined. After being drawn into the public plaza at the museum’s heart, visitors are greeted by a glass-walled lobby displaying the museum’s different programmatic functions – an amalgam of spaces dedicated to teaching, making, and interacting with art. Lecture theatres, gallery spaces, and classrooms are encouraged to spill out into generous covered outdoor spaces which flow through the building. The entire arrangement has been designed with flexibility and transparency in mind. The corrugated facade has smooth zones for outdoor film screenings, and a courtyard doubles as a sculpture garden. With a dappled play of light and shadow, the ever-present roof canopy binds all these functions together.
A building like this offers an interesting perspective on how a primarily material discipline like architecture can be relevant in an age of primarily immaterial progress. Rather than a set of prescriptive constraints, the building exists as a series of gradients – open to closed, indoor to outdoor, public to private, light to dark. These gradients create a complex web of highly specific spatial conditions, the configuration of which has enough embedded flexibility to be interpreted and re-interpreted over time. Light on its feet, the museum which exists as a supple framework – something far more articulated than the tabula rasa floorplans of early modernism. Rather than a blank canvas on which anything can unfold, SO-IL have created something in Davis with enough latent potential to be relevant and engaging for years to come.