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‘The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art by SO-IL is an evolution in thinking about the contemporary art museum’

Moira Gemmill shortlist: the delicate canopy oversailing the galleries and workshops of SO-IL’s Manetti Shrem Museum of Art fosters intimacy and welcome

You can identify the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art from a distance, even when travelling at speed. An extensive canopy appears to rise from the regimented agricultural landscape of inland California and hover in the air as a marker of some as-yet unspecified activity. You register perhaps this new stratum of construction from a vehicle passing on the adjacent freeway, or from a train linking Reno, inland, to San Francisco on the Pacific coast. Or you encounter it while exploring the campus of the University of California, Davis, the canopy descending from above a cluster of ribbed concrete pavilions to levitate across a welcoming plaza and provide delicately patterned shade. Then you notice works of art, and students taking classes or simply hanging out. The Manetti Shrem introduces a new architectural spirit to the Davis campus. It represents an evolution in thinking about the contemporary art museum.

‘The Manetti Shrem introduces a new architectural spirit to the Davis campus’

The architects are Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg in association with BCJ (Bohlin Cywinski Jackson). Liu and Idenburg first met through SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) in Tokyo, Liu an intern and Idenburg a long-term SANAA operative. Due to her peripatetic upbringing, Liu speaks with gentle sophistication. Born in China, she moved to Japan aged nine and completed her secondary education in London. Liu explains that, ‘I really wanted to get into journalism school’, but suggests, perhaps a little disingenuously, that ‘my English was so bad’. A truly global citizen, she studied architecture at Tulane in New Orleans (the first mainland Chinese undergraduate) before heading to New York to work for mega-practice Kohn Pedersen Fox. A chance encounter with Sejima reacquainted Liu with Idenburg. They founded their joint practice in 2008 and called it Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu, SO – IL.

Manetti shrem floor plan

Manetti shrem floor plan

Ground floor plan - click to expand

The Manetti Shrem now places SO – IL in the spotlight the architects have gravitated towards ever since meeting in Tokyo – Idenburg had moved to the US to work on SANAA’s New Museum in Manhattan and the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art. SO – IL’s practice has from its initial steps had affinities with fashion and art, building the serpentine tent for Frieze Art Fair on New York’s Randall’s Island; and Kukje Gallery, an enigmatic cube wrapped in mesh, in a neighbourhood of Seoul, South Korea. Indeed, their very first project was to fit out studio space for Derek Lam above Lam’s SANAA-designed boutique in Manhattan’s SoHo. That initial intervention included a remarkably thin wall finished in light-reflecting beeswax plaster. Thus, from its inception, SO – IL has exhibited an understanding of the art world and an accompanying aesthetic sensibility immersed in light and attention to surface.

Sitting now at her conference table, one winter afternoon in Brooklyn, Liu interprets the name of this polyglot practice as ‘solidifying the objectives’. She defines Solid Objectives as being simultaneously ‘daring and … on the ground’, radical yet pragmatic, envisioning ‘practice as a process of experimentation’. Liu recounts her peregrinations from China to New York, balancing her architectural practice with raising her daughters with Idenburg and teaching at Columbia University (SO – IL added a third partner, Ilias Papageorgiou, in 2013). Today, many of their young and similarly international colleagues are busy at their computer screens. There are invariably white models of projects waiting to be built. The partners are preparing for a visit to Mexico to present proposals for low-cost housing, a new typology for SO – IL and a clear sign that their ambitions are not limited to the rarefied world of art and fashion.

Liu remarks of UC Davis that it was ‘courageous of the university’ to select a comparatively untested practice (the other finalists were their New York contemporaries WORKac and Henning Larsen’s more established firm in Copenhagen). SO – IL’s partners for the museum, BCJ, provided a complementary track record, in California, of complex and tailored projects such as their vitreous Apple stores. Liu also reveals that Shrem and Manetti Shrem, the project’s principal benefactors, were ‘adamant to not only choose a male figure’. Rachel Teagle, the museum’s director, notes that the  selection of SO – IL, and the inclusion  of other emerging firms on the long list, ‘skewed toward young talent’. An energetic advocate for the architects, Teagle connects the choice of SO – IL with UC Davis’s hiring of radical young art faculty back in the  1950s (Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William T Wiley).

‘It has an iconic appeal even if, as Liu insists, the architects were not in pursuit of iconic form’

Indeed, the inaugural exhibition includes impressive works by this generation, with the opening graced by Thiebaud in person. The Manetti Shrem is a university museum: it both displays art and fosters academic and social activity. The great canopy dips from a high point more than 30 feet in the air to hover at basketball hoop height above the entry court that addresses the main campus. ‘We decided to not go high’, explains Liu, ‘and to go low.’ The one-storey building, she states, is ‘not expensive but expansive’. Indeed, whereas interior spaces occupy half the available site, the great canopy extends to almost all available boundaries. This horizontal emphasis was key to competition success; the resulting canopy functions at the scale of infrastructure yet also provides a sense of intimacy and welcome. It has an iconic appeal even if, as Liu insists, the architects were not in pursuit of iconic form. 

In 2010, SO – IL won the coveted commission for outdoor summertime shelter at PS1, the contemporary art venue in Queens, New York (WORKac had garnered that gig two years earlier). The SO – IL intervention, cheekily dubbed Pole Dance, consisted of an array of canted poles holding up a sea of netting. At UC Davis, the canopy is of course permanent and the posts are vertical; yet this gently shaded forecourt is surely from the same gene pool as Pole Dance. The white steel frame appears propped on the structural grid. Rising and falling in section, it is cut into in plan so that some sides are curved or sliced; a biomorphic oculus opens up above the forecourt. The canopy’s own grid is irregular with many trapezoidal zones making up a quilt-like pattern further emphasised by the mix’n’match alignment of perforated aluminium beams. It is these perforations that instigate the gauzy, striped shadows below.

Manetti shrem section

Manetti shrem section

Section - click to expand

The Davis campus extends into this bower of bony white structure and silvery aluminium beams. The three primary programmatic spaces of the Manetti Shrem Museum – for exhibitions, education and administration – are housed in the pavilions with ribbed concrete walls. These  vertical lines enter into a kinetic play of stripes with the perforated beams above and the transient patterns these beams cast onto wall and ground surface over the natural course of the day. The large interior foyer is accessed between exhibition and education pavilions: a taut concave membrane of floor-to-ceiling glass allows  for almost panoramic visual connections between outer and inner zones. A smaller expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass extends forward from the exhibition pavilion as  a sophisticated bay window harbouring  a small gallery space like a shopfront  or teaser to the exhibitions within.

Teagle states the building, as completed, goes ‘beyond our expectations’. She notes that ‘people have a visceral response to standing under the canopy (…) not just because it’s porous, the canopy shapes your view toward the campus’. The museum is also of course porous in plan. The interior opens up between the concrete pavilions so that the pedestrian realm flows through the site, into the galleries, through the art studios (‘a social and convivial space’, says Teagle), and into a patio between the administration and exhibition pavilions. This patio is protected from vigorous winds and from the noise of passing traffic including frequent cargo trains. The  clear, frameless glazing and the  contiguous polished concrete floors instigate an impressive sense of transparency and spatial fluidity. In the galleries, suspended mesh ceilings allow glimpses of the service equipment above. There’s elegance but little fuss.

Liu and Idenburg’s strategic approach to architecture was signalled from the outset with Future Archaeology. That clever and economical exhibition, in Los Angeles in 2009, emphasised emerging forms of social space in an increasingly networked world. Now, at UC Davis, planning and aesthetics work in tandem to stylish yet fundamentally human ends. The layering evident in the building acts environmentally as well as optically. Teagle commends SO – IL for its willingness to present and test a range of construction options. Hence of course ‘solid objectives’. And hence Teagle’s praise of SO – IL being ‘remarkably open and adaptable’. The Manetti Shrem Museum manifests Idenburg and Liu’s interest in membrane and in surface for the first time at this scale. When Liu states ‘I always go against the grain’, she is referring to a professional trajectory in conscious evolution.

Architect: Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg (SO–IL) in association with BCJ (Bohlin Cywinski Jackson)

Structural engineer: Rutherford + Chekene

Mechanical engineer: WSP

Photographs: Iwan Baan 

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