Fog Facade: Snøhetta’s Urban Strategy for the new SFMOMA

by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher

Snøhetta, the international design office, is not the first architecture firm to undertake site-specific design, but it is among the pioneers whose architecture purposefully recalls beloved local splendor. Much of Snøhetta’s built work makes a visual connection to an iconic cultural or natural condition inherent to the site. The firm’s Opera House for the city of Oslo pierces the city’s waterfront like a steep, icy slope edging a fjord. Its library in Alexandrina, Egypt, has a granite facade of etched characters recalling ancient hieroglyphs. Concretizing beloved local phenomena in municipal architecture, Snøhetta’s buildings hardly recede into their surroundings, but rather introduce a restrained, but recognizable, iconography.

Other architects have addressed ideas of nature and culture within their work. The San Francisco (by way of South Africa) architect Stanley Saitowitz, whose work is very site-considered, wrote about San Francisco’s streets “running like waterfalls over the city’s hills.” The New York–based architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro designed and fabricated a building with walls of misted water as a temporary installation for the 2002 Swiss Expo. Named the Blur Building, its form was in constant flux depending on how the wind was blowing. In this way, the architecture was the natural element, rather than a representation of it.

A building engulfed in white mist against a blue background

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, Blur Building, temporary installation for the 2002 Swiss Expo, Yverdon-les-Bains

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972). The book takes Las Vegas as a case study to discuss symbolism in architecture.

FAT, the British design firm, takes a more Pop approach to creating architecture meant to be read. In some ways it is a mashup of Robert Venturi’s “duck versus decorated shed” observation regarding two different strategies for symbolism in architecture: the duck being the embodiment of an idea in sculptural form, and the decorated shed being covered in signifying ornament. FAT’s architecture employs large-scale graphic elements that also inform the design, often to humorous effect.

Architectural structure in front of a pond

FAT, The Villa community building, 2008, Hoogvliet, the Netherlands

While Snøhetta almost moved into duck-ish territory with Tuballoon—a temporary band shelter for the Kongsberg Jazz Festival—its work tends to be more subtle in its formal references, leaning toward the ornamental but maintaining a kind of legibility that captures abstract, sometimes metaphorical, but never exact, notions.

A white architectural structure in the form of a speaker

Snøhetta, Tuballoon, 2006, Kongsberg Jazz Festival, Norway

For the Isabel Bader Centre concert hall interior, the asymmetrical acoustic paneling provides excellent sound quality, but Snøhetta also arranged it to evoke the area’s local rock strata; thus the interior references outside geological patterns. As Snøhetta partners Craig Dykers and Kjetil Thorsen often say, “We do not see ourselves as creators of architectural symbols, but rather as suppliers of possible associations.”

A wood-paneled auditorium

Snøhetta, Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, 2014, Kingston, Ontario

San Francisco—a seven-by-seven-mile, densely developed urban area at the tip of a slender peninsula surrounded by water—claims a unique climatic phenomenon. Fog can arrive suddenly and unannounced, creating a winter chill on what is elsewhere in the Bay Area a sunny California day. It rushes over the hills and creeps down the avenues, sometimes forcefully, sometimes elusively. A neighborhood may suddenly be enveloped by a dense, wet opacity, limiting visibility to half a block.

Snohetta’s new expansion for SFMOMA is sited mid-block downtown, amid tall office towers. Recognizing that it would be nearly impossible to see the full edifice from any one viewpoint at street level, they designed it as a thick, horizontal form that, from the street, performs like a fog wall appearing in between, behind, and among the other buildings.

The front of the SFMOMA building

From New Montgomery Street, the SFMOMA expansion is a unique horizontal presence in a landscape of vertical skyscrapers; yet it is not incongruous. It is surprising and beckoning. Once inside the building, the “shroud” dissipates, and the many views to the outside frame the city’s verticality, inviting consideration of the building’s difference within a field of rectilinear constructions.

White rippling facade in a skyscraper context

Photo: Paul Clemence

Snøhetta’s architects marveled at the city’s transformation when the fog rolls in, and took a similarly compelling performative strategy in their design approach. Paying homage to a natural phenomenon so locally beloved that it has even been personified as Karl the Fog, SFMOMA’s expansion appears to weave boldly through its vertical crowd. It achieves Snøhetta’s mission to enhance our (collective) sense of place, identity, and relationship to others, bring awareness to the architectural qualities of fog, and create an identifiable connection to a local icon.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher is the Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design at SFMOMA.

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