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The Asian Art Museum, Already Huge, Is About to Get Even Huger

Almost doubling its exhibition space, thanks in part to a $25 million gift from Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.

SLIDESHOW

Pavillion exterior

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Pavilion exterior

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Lobby

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Pavilion interior

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South court

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Terrace

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Kulapat Yantrasast talks about the expansion and renovation of the Asian Art Museum as acupuncture, rather than plastic surgery. “It’s about analyzing the body and prescribing an intervention from the inside out,” Yantrasast, the project’s principal architect, says: A transformation beginning from within. That said, when the museum emerges after going under the knife beginning early next year, it’s going to have an entirely new appendage.

Museum leaders gathered Tuesday morning to release details of the $38 million expansion that will—when finished in summer 2019—nearly double its total exhibition space. The biggest addition is a new 8,500 square-foot, column-less exhibition pavilion with 16 ½ foot high ceilings on the east side of the building, atop what is now office space.

The museum also announced a $25 million gift toward the project’s total price tag made by Asian Art Museum Foundation board chair Akiko Yamazaki, whose husband, Jerry Yang, was a cofounder of Yahoo. The museum has embarked on a five-year, $90 million capital campaign to finance the expansion and related programming. As a result, the new pavilion space will be named the Akiko Yamazaki & Jerry Yang Pavilion. The museum reports that it has already raised $60 million toward the total goal.

Museum leaders hope to break ground as soon as January 2018. The museum will remain open during construction, however specific areas will be closed on a rotating basis.

It’s the latest in a recent string of high-profile Bay Area museum expansions. Most spectacularly, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2016 after a $305 transformation; the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive also underwent a $112 million renovation.

The Asian Art Museum’s budget—and footprint—aren’t quite on that scale. But Yantrasast hopes its renovation is just as profound. The pavilion isn’t the only part of the museum being touched during the renovation, which has been in the works for several years. Plans also call for upgrades to classroom spaces, a redesign of the lobby that fronts Larkin Street, which will offer new access to the grand Loggia staircase, and the addition of digital signage and visitor amenities in the South Court.

Still, the most meaningful transformation is undoubtedly the new pavilion, an almost square space that can accommodate immersive contemporary displays, traditional white-wall shows, and performances. The pavilion represents an 80 percent increase to the museum’s total exhibition space—which, Yantrasast points out, will free up its existing galleries for new and more appropriate uses, including the museum’s first dedicated space for contemporary art. Atop the pavilion will be a 7,200-square-foot open-air terrace that opens up to the Samsung Hall. The terrace will house sculpture work and host receptions and other programming, and look down onto Hyde Street below.

As it is, large-scale exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum have a tendency to feel disjointed, the result of their being staged in as many as five different rooms, often separated by corridors and doors—a remnant of the 1917 building’s previous life as the city library. (It was redesigned in 2003 by Italian architect Gae Aulenti when the Asian Art Museum moved in.) Yantrasast says that the improvements to the existing portion of the structure, particularly opening up the main staircase to the front lobby, will help reorient the building more toward its original axis.

For this renovation, Yantrasast and his team at Los Angeles-based firm wHY—who have previously handled renovations to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, the Mancino Art Foundation in Los Angeles, the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, and the Studio Art Hall at Pomona College—tried to ground their design in the prevailing beaux-arts aesthetic of the Civic Center, with some modern touches. “We all agree it should be something that connects and respects the existing building, the legacy and heritage part of it, but it should be of its own time,” he says. “Not something from the past.”

To that end, the museum’s granite stone motif will continue around the base of the new pavilion. But atop it, Yantrasast is planning for a façade of 30-by-18-inch ceramic terra cotta tiles. The tiles, which need to be specially manufactured, echo the shape and patina of the building’s existing granite, and also connect thematically to the collection housed within. Says Yantrasast, “Almost every culture represented in the museum, from Korea to Japan to China and India and south Asia, almost every culture has a ceramic legacy.”

The design has its high-tech flourishes, too. Yantrasast says that although the tiles’ pattern will appear random, it will actually be the result of a computer algorithm.

The other clearly visible change from the exterior will be a large, jewel-shaped window facing Hyde Street that looks out from what is expected to be a 1,000-square-foot lounge connected to the pavilion. The window, which will begin 10 feet above street level will—along with the terrace above—create a more dynamic, give-and-take relationship with Hyde Street. (The pedestrian level will also feature a “community art wall.”) That, Yantrasast acknowledges, cuts both ways: The large windows and open-air terrace are meant to make the museum—otherwise one of many almost windowless fortresses that ring Civic Center Plaza—more inviting to the outside world. At the same time, the designs eliminate many of the nooks and crannies along Hyde that seem to attract dubious behavior. “We want to be welcoming, but we also have to make sure our patrons and visitors are not disturbed,” he says.

As for leaving the Asian Art Museum’s unique cultural imprint on the grand beaux-arts Civic Center landscape, Yantrasast offers, “Culture should belong to everyone. The Asian Art Museum isn’t only for Asian people. The museum is a junction for everyone to understand each other. And don’t we need that more than ever.”

 

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