The De Young Museum
San Francisco is loamy & verdant. The efflorescence of the temperate coniferous forests has a way of folding itself around your senses, luring you into a state of easy, quiet lucidity. The mist, rolling in thick and fleecy off the Pacific, only amplifies the effect of folding pedestrians into the fabric of the biome. Even expressions of personality and behavior seem inherently geographic, interwoven into the landscape in San Francisco- along Haight Ashbury you see echoes of the 1960s counter culture being played out as if from an invisible script, as though these seismic cultural shifts are still quivering in the streets, in the bones of the city. Hermetically sealed, preserved, the city seems uniquely able to reproduce itself with very little mutation or outside influence, like a fern.
Shivering a bit in the Mission District, we stop for small cups of espresso. My companion lists for me some places that I might like to make drawings. I roam about in the mist by the seaside, eventually return into the city center and, later in the day, arrive at the Haight Muni stop.
Slipping, away from the haphazard electrocarnival of the Haight, into Golden Gate Park, is a relief. In the park, paths meander with a detachment from destination, and the air is thick, damp with oxygen and life again. Divertissements hailing from diverse cultural origins entice the flaneur- a Japanese tea garden, a Victorian-looking botanical garden, “Portals of the Past”, and Strawberry Hill. A hill of strawberries? Such a poetic phenomena is natural, unsurprising here. Here, the cultural conception of beauty is sincere, relatively free of desire, imbued with spirituality, complex and harmonious- cosmopolitan without becoming rootless.
The influence of Chinese and Japanese culture is significant, not only as a result of the large population of migrants that settled here and brought with them a rich cultural history, but also due to the legacy of D. T. Suzuki and his influence on the artists and writers who shaped San Francisco culture, as well as the influence of Zen Buddhism on the tech industry.
Round a turn, and there among stone lions, bronze men (Goethe and Schiller, two pals), a grandiose, landscaped vista, not dissimilar to the framing of the Taj Mahal- there, a form rises- although, barely a form- an extrusion again of the biome. Modestly shimmering, angular, soft with green, the copper form of the De Young museum. Copper naturally patinas to a muted turquoise. The building eschews hipster irony (such as an ironic Prada store or postmodern referentiality), and it rejects self-aggrandizing kudos (such as a marble-and-gilt facade or high-gloss material). The building respects the dignity of individuals.
The building declares itself with a clear entrance as a public arts institution.
The museum is named after M. H. De Young, who “cofounded a publishing empire in San Francisco in 1865,” according to Forbes. Readers may be familiar with his publication The San Francisco Chronicle, which De Young founded with his brothers. The publication was eventually sold to Hearst, according to the American Journalism Review. The De Young museum, in its current form, was built to replace an older iteration, “a group of ornate Spanish Colonial and Egyptian Revival-style buildings damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake,” as SF Gate describes. Voters initially voted down a proposition for public funding to create a new iteration of the museum. However, private funds were raised, and the project came to be. Herzog and De Meuron were chosen to design the new De Young, which was completed in 2005.
Though the trees outside are gridded with orthogonal order and geometric regularity, a more organic ordering system takes hold as you enter the architectural space. Some would argue that statistics are the mathematics of nature. They embrace a complex system as it is, without erasing “flaws” to adjust reality to an abstraction. Calculus, on the other hand, models the ideal with ease, eliminating from consideration points which do not fit the function. In the case of the De Young, the shapes are rigid and boldly angled, yet do not adhere to the basic geometries. Neither statistical or classically geometric, they feel anatomical. The metallic angles bend with the angles and proportions of bones.
Inside the museum, the aesthetic heavy hitter- the copper exterior- is no longer at play, and the architectural experience decrescendos into a more typical museum form. However, the galleries are successful simply in the ease of their layout; like the paths in Golden Gate Park, they create the sense of wandering upon novelties, rather than marching toward a destination.
A glass wall looks out onto a courtyard, where theatrically rough-hewn stones are affixed to the masonry flooring to serve as bench seating. The masonry flooring of the courtyard surface is set with the stone seats and surrounded by the copper exterior, creating a space where museum-goers are laid out to bake, like raw pizzas in a wood-fire stove, or bone-dry ceramics going in to be fired. In this space, cracks in the aesthetic gestalt, in the harmony of design intent and realization, begin to appear- like cracks revealed in fired clay. In the courtyard, pounding industrial angles are simultaneous with the pseudoprimitive. Though I would reserve the word ‘Disneyfied’ for the work of Frank Gehry, stone here does border on a pastiche of its own cultural image. I would not say that it borders on a pastiche of itself, because it is living, complex, and independent of the ontological phenomenon that is human imaginings of stone- but the way stone is imagined here borders on a pastiche of previous human imaginings of stone. For example, the Flintstones.
Techne is the nebulous aesthetic zone which the building grasps for. It is not sentiment, the celestial, the real natural (which can be messy, even biologically nauseating), futurism, the dream-symbol, or any number of other nebulous aesthetic zones, which could be grasped at in the design of an art museum. The building references primitive tool-making, the archaeological discovery of tools, and the fading of those tools and crafts into the distant, geological past- striking this aesthetic chord with the blunt confidence of a swinging hammer.
Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam was released in 2007, two years after the completion of the DeYoung museum. Their album Merriweather Post Pavilion was released two years later in 2009.
review of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Pitchfork:
… “They’ve seeded pretty instrumentals with irritating noise. They've juxtaposed West African rhythms and melodies cribbed from British folk. They've stayed on a single chord for 10 minutes. But Merriweather feels like a joyous meeting in a well-earned, middle place…”
reviews of Person Pitch, Pitchfork:
“…sampling old songs and instruments and spinning them in wheels of sound that seem like they could go forever. Most of this record consists of intricately constructed, heavily layered, and highly repetitive loops on top of which Lennox sings oddly familiar and touching melodies…”
“…one guy alone in his bedroom trolling through music history, picking and choosing bits to make something deeply personal and all his own.”
Like San Francisco itself, Noah Lennox’s aesthetic palette is personal, curated, misty, self-reproducing, historically selective, and blossoming within constraints.
Animal Collective manifested a radical shift in indie rock- - merging ultrasaturated abstraction with dance pop and singer / songwriter introspection. Like the Romanticists- who found urban life grating, refused to become the lyric caryatids of Industrialism, and returned to Nature to reconnect with their emotional lives and the sublime beauty of Nature- Animal Collective rejected the self-flagellating pathos of 90’s grunge, which defined indie rock for so long, to create symphonic, jubilant harmonies that grasped at a primal, ultrasaturated expression of the heart. At the core, there is a longing for ‘authenticity’, Nature, and the expression of individual feeling to bring society together- vulnerably, ecstatically, and honestly. Despite the transcendent aesthetic goal, Beauty, there is an undeniable streak of angst in the throaty vocal howls and lyrical critiques of society. It is a desperate, manic beauty.
Vogue covers Rodarte’s Spring 2020 photoshoot with photographer Daria Kobayashi Ritch, noting that the shoot takes place “on a fantastitical rococo set meant to resemble, according to Kate Mulleavy, “almost a painting in which nature was invading a space that was slightly manufactured.” Vogue acknowledges the “Mulleavys’ ability to think digitally and cinematically,” as “one manifestation of their agenda-setting role as independent designers.”
Postmodern fashion isn’t defined by heavily overarching, linear trends- - fashion houses like Rodarte tap into aesthetics and forms that express psychosocial relationships- - a man or woman’s place along the gender spectrum, sexual personality, politics, beliefs about their identity, power, and position. These aesthetics and forms come from across history, and become branded as Rodarte. At Rodarte, they tap into a state of florid, baroque complexity that feels ancient, feminine, and biological, but which could only be expressed with their particular flair in the context of the postmodern.
Like Animal Collective, Rodarte’s particular beauty feels slightly reactive to the mainstream- - in some ways the look feels like a Romanticist anti-modern, a countercultural pushback against a trending repression of feminity in fashion. Like Animal Collective, Rodarte selectively culls the annals of history, amalgamating aesthetics into a sort of non-time- - a nebulous aesthetic zone that hangs above linear time, chilling on a vibe. Like Animal Collective, Rodarte achieves an indie baroque through a complex process of sampling, looping, and remixing.
Though they have aesthetic similarities, the DeYoung museum is unlike the creative works of Animal Collective and Rodarte in that it feels anti-digital in its restraint and solidity. Animal Collective and Rodarte capture, to tape & film, a shimmering vortex as it exists in a moment- like a Polaroid of falling petals- while the DeYoung feels as though wave after cultural wave could wash over it without effecting so much as a shudder.
Proposing cosmopolitanism as biological
These works reflect the increasing desire to create a cosmopolitan social condition that works in harmony- aesthetically and materially- with our biological condition. They reflect a desire to access some quality of existence that exists romantically in our imagination of the past, but to translate this imagined ideal state into the present using contemporary technologies and forms of media & representation. There was an element of anarchoprimitivism in the hippie movement of the 1960s, and threads of this ideology still shimmer in the counterculture; what makes the creative work of Animal Collective, Rodarte, and the DeYoung museum interesting and productive is that they eschew these retrogressive ideas in favor of progressive, self-organizing, biological cosmopolitanism.
Paolo Soleri, designer of Arcosanti, describes his theory of “the urban effect”, in The Omega Seed as “the progressive interiorization, urbanization, of the mass-energy universe, initially deploying itself in space-time and eventually re-collecting itself, through the transfigurative process of evolution, into spirit,” (Todd and Todd, 82). In John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd’s From Eco-Cities to Living Machines, they describe Soleri’s principle as follows:
“At a certain point two or more particles of physical matter begin to interact in ways other than statistical and fatal. Matter moves from behavior governed by the laws of physics into behavior which is organic or living; behavior becomes instinctive, self-conscious, mental, cultural, and spiritual. Soleri sees this urban effect as the natural enactment of human evolution, for which the intensity of urban life- as opposed to socially-isolated sparse rural settlement- is necessary.” (Todd and Todd, 82).
This vision of the urban condition stands in stark contrast to the image painted by Koolhaas in Delirious New York, in which Nature is virtually erased in favor of a blase funhouse of endless novelty and vice, where the ideal state involves a total erasure of the biological. What differentiates the Todds and Paolo Soleri from Koolhaas is their curation of values and aesthetic selectivity. While for Koolhaas, everything is quite passively kind of whatever, Soleri and the Todds ascribe a hierarchy of values and a belief system toward the world, sifting through the overwhelming condition of the world and making significantly more selective value judgments on what is good. This tendency is parallel to the tendency of San Francisco, the DeYoung, and the artists investigated here to exercise restraint and selectivity when sampling from the cultural canon.
Giving space for plant life
According to Golden Gate Park, “One of the most significant changes that set the old de Young Museum aside from the new version not only includes the size of the building, but also offers the environmentally conscious concept of giving back more green to the surrounding environment.” Though the new De Young has 292,000 square feet, compared to 140,000 square feet in the old building, the building’s total footprint was decreased, “creating 88,000 square feet of green space that was returned to the park.” Though the building cannot claim to achieve passive environmental control, the gesture of giving space back to the park reflects environmental values that go beyond aesthetic signification. These give some measure of authenticity to the semiotic gestures present in the design such as creating a green patina condition, or aesthetically referencing a forest canopy, as the copper skin is reportedly designed to evoke.
The museum tower is one of the primary features of the museum besides its copper exterior. Spiraling upward and outward in a bold, angular geometry, the tower protrudes like an appendage from the main space of the museum. Museum goers can enter the tower lobby downstairs, and take an elevator up to an observation deck, where slick glass walls offer a (nearly) unobstructed 360 degree view of San Francisco and the surrounding landscape in Golden Gate Park. The view is only nearly unobstructed, because there are the necessary mullions in the glass, and the the architects have chosen to overlay the copper exterior, perforated by a pattern of circles, out around the window, screening the top edge of the view. Like the mat in a framed picture, the pattern edges the view of the city, placing it in a geometric, mod visual context- as if reiterating what San Francisco is, limiting the individual’s personal interpretation of the scene. The elevated view of the surrounding world literally and figuratively offers viewers perspective on life. Perhaps painters and philosophers retreat there to ponder world events from a point of comparative objectivity, or perhaps the broken-hearted trek to the observation deck to recontextualize their personal tragedies as relatively inconsequential, compared to the scale of the universe. In offering museum goers a relatively open-ended space of observation and introspection is another example of the De Young museum’s unique ability to demonstrate respect for the dignity of the individual.
The museum- well-designed, artfully articulated, and lovely to experience- earns its place among the best works of museum architecture in the United States. The building reflects a deep cultural desire to integrate more harmoniously with nature and to imitate biological complexity in aesthetic works. Seemingly solidly built, and beloved at least by this reviewer, the museum will hopefully stand the test of time and serve as a cultural oasis-within-an-oasis at Golden Gate Park for San Franciscans and the city’s visitors for generations to come. If a greater number of cultural institutions, creatives, architects, and urban planners brought a similar respect for the dignity of the individual to their work, I would imagine we would live in a better world.
Todd, Nancy Jack, and John Todd. From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design. North Atlantic Books, 1994.
A+HRRA award summer 2023
The Summer 2023 Arts + Human Rights Research Award will be open to submissions this summer (approx. 14:51 UTC June 21 2023 - 06:50 UTC September 23rd 2023). The topic of the Summer 2023 A+HRRA is AI, Computer Logic, and Human Rights.
th_Eroses, an arts publication www.theroses.xyz, is awarding $100 for a work of artistic / literary research that addresses or concerns human rights in conjunction with this season's topic, AI, Computer Logic, and Human Rights. The term 'research' here is intended to indicate the process of creation, exploration, and discovery, rather than the compiling of archival facts and/or materials, although the compiling of archival facts and/or materials may be a part of the process of exploration and discovery, or a part of the process of shaping the path or direction of discovery. This is intended to be an open-ended premise, to support the range of work that may occur in artists' and writers' unique processes.
From the UN:
"What Are Human Rights? Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination."
Successful submissions may, but are not required to, focus on investigative, process-based exploration and material discovery. Successful submissions may couple rigorous (or subjective) analysis with documentation of investigative, process-based exploration and discovery. Submissions do not need to be factual; forms of literary fiction, subjective expression, abstraction, choreography, and/or non-narrative presentations will be considered as well. Submissions in all languages and media are welcomed.
The goal of this award is to amplify artistic voices that inquisitively and critically approach the pressing issues of our time, to create a habitat where a unique form of creative journalism can thrive, and to provide th_Eroses readers with artistic / literary insights into key issues.
Please note: If your work is submitted and selected for the award, you consent to the publication of your submitted work by th_Eroses now and in the future. Not all submissions will win the award; there may be one submission chosen, or multiple submissions, or none of the submissions. Selected submissions will receive an email of acceptance and next steps.
Please submit work to email@example.com with "Entry: Arts + Human Rights Research Award" in the subject line.