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Henry Urbach Leaves SFMOMA
One of the country's few architecture curators departs for unknown territory.
Courtesy SFMOMA

On Tuesday SFMOMA Curator of Architecture and Design Henry Urbach announced that he would end his nearly five-year tenure at the museum. In an interview Urbach expressed gratitude for the opportunity, but indicated that he was ready to move on.

“I feel with this suite of shows, and about 450 objects that I’ve been able to bring into the collection, this chapter has come to a timely and graceful close,” he said. “At this point what I’m really excited about is drawing upon what I’ve learned here and taking my project—which is to try and develop fresh, compelling ways for people to encounter architecture and design—into a new context that offers a different set of opportunities and constraints. Many opportunities have come my way that I have not been able to explore because of my very full-time work.”

SFMOMA was the first museum on the West Coast to establish a department of architecture and design, back in 1983 (one of the few museums with such a department). Before taking over from Joseph Rosa in 2006 Urbach had run his own gallery in Chelsea for nine years, Henry Urbach Architecture, which was known for edgy architectural and art exhibitions. Arriving at SFMOMA, he started with an Olafur Eliasson exhibit in 2008 which featured an ice-encased car, kept frozen in a special gallery. Other exhibits include Cut: Revealing the Section, which explored the section cut through architecture and artworks, and the first solo exhibition of the speculations of Berlin firm J. Mayer H. For How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now, Urbach collaborated with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. His latest show is Para Design, an exhibit of offbeat design items that fall outside of conventional objects. In the fall 2010 issue of Log magazine, Urbach wrote about his “post-object” approach to exhibitions, where objects are simply part of a larger experience that unfolds over space and time.

“I'm eager to finish my book on installation architecture along with other pending projects,” Urbach wrote AN in an email. When asked where he planned to go next, he replied: “My home from 1984 - 2006, New York, will always be HQ, so that's a strong contender. I also have some thoughts about what may be possible in LA.”

“I can’t imagine another job in San Francisco that would be so exciting,” he said.

The design community in San Francisco is still reacting to the news. “It’s a great loss,” said one local architect. "Henry's tenure at SFMOMA sets the bar higher for curatorial vision and exhibition design, beyond traditional frameworks of the art historical survey, retrospective and other familiar forms of museum experience," said Cary Bernstein, a San Francisco architect and Chair of SFMOMA's Architecture + Design Forum. "It is never just about the 'stuff' in the gallery for him, but the deliberate engagement with the 'stuff' that is equally important to unlock its meaning."

"I have tremendous respect for what he accomplished, in particular his inventive attitude about how museum spaces themselves can become immersive architectural experiences--he used the language of architecture and design to exhibit architecture and design," said David Meckel, Director of Research and Planning at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Urbach had not been a particularly visible figure in San Francisco. Said one insider, “People generally thought he was a big improvement over his predecessor, but I’m not sure he did such a good job at building relationships with the community.” The department has three other employees, and the search has not yet been opened for a successor.

Lydia Lee