MCASD Keeps Going

Selldorf Architects breaks ground on controversial San Diego museum expansion

Architecture West
Selldorf Architects has broken ground on their new addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art addition in San Diego (MCASD). (Courtesy Selldorf Architects)
Selldorf Architects has broken ground on their new addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art addition in San Diego (MCASD). (Courtesy Selldorf Architects)

After a summer filled with dueling op-eds, petitions, and general outcry from members of the international architectural community, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and New York City–based Selldorf Architects have officially broken ground on a controversial $95 million expansion to the museum’s campus in La Jolla, California.

The Times of San Diego reports that the groundbreaking occurred Thursday of last week and quotes Selldorf Architects founder Annabelle Selldorf as saying: “This is a special place in the world. But the collection of the museum inspires equal awe. Giving home to this beautiful collection is an incredibly vital thing to do.”

The project aims to more than double the size of the museum by adding 37,000 square feet of new spaces to the complex, which was last expanded by Venturi Scott Brown Associates (VSBA) in 1996. The designers aim to achieve this task by adding a new ocean-facing wing along the southern end of the complex, reorienting the museum’s entry and adding a slew of much-needed gallery spaces in the process. The project also aims to renovate the existing 35,000-square-foot original complex, which was initially designed by famed California architect Irving Gill and was expanded several times during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s by local architects Mosher Drew.

The reorientation of the museum’s entrance has been seen as controversial by many in the international architecture community, including Denise Scott Brown who has spoken out against the addition. Scott Brown contends that the entry VSBA designed was derived from the “careful study and understanding of La Jolla’s urban form” in a widely-circulated petition, and that as a result, the plan deserves to be preserved. In several phone calls with The Architect’s Newspaper, Scott Brown has explained that she does not see Selldorf’s addition and the preservation of the VSBA elements as mutually exclusive, however, and hopes that a way can be found to retain the logic of the existing entrance while fulfilling the needs of the growing museum.

VSBA’s addition is marked by the iconic Axline Court, a star-shaped entry topped by neon-lit archways. (Timothy Hursley/Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates)

The existing entry arrangement is a chief design contribution from Scott Brown—who aside from being an architect is also a celebrated urban planner—and it is considered an integral aspect of the VSBA addition and its guiding postmodern ideals. The elements that are being retained by the Selldrorf team relate more directly to the bombastic, iconographic forms VSBA is best known for and include the museum’s so-called Axline Court, a starburst-shaped atrium topped by neon-lit archways.

According to Selldorf, her team is dedicated to celebrating the many lives of the museum and has worked hard to retain key elements of the VSBA design. Regarding the entrance, Selldorf told AN this summer, “Our task was to add an entrance that people could find,” while adding, “Not everybody thought we should be so determined to keep [the VSBA-designed] portions, but we are doing a lot of work to have those elements retain a significant presence in reinvigorated building.”

The proposed renovations have exposed a critical and long-running schism in preservation thinking over not only which types of heritage are worth preserving, but perhaps as significantly, over the scope and scale of what is considered fundamental to postmodernism and postmodern design in architecture. The question here, as with many preservation-related projects, is whether surface-level decoration—neon lights, flamboyant archways, and textured materials—convey the essence of a work enough to allow for fundamental changes in use and organization or whether true preservation requires more.

The question has gained greater urgency in the weeks following the death of Robert Venturi and amid a growing climate of uncertainty for not only VSBA’s works, but for elements of postmodern heritage in general.

According to Scott Brown’s interpretation, the project’s plan—inspired by the double-coded logic of medieval European town squares and urban economic theory—is as important to MCASD’s status as a postmodern work as the building’s more visually-aggressive elements, highlighting the fundamental disagreement at hand.

Either way, Scott Brown’s petition and the global outcry have not been enough to cause thinking on the project to shift significantly. Site work has been underway at the complex over the last few months as crews worked to remove a monumental pergola associated with the VSBA addition. Last week’s official groundbreaking indicates the project is moving forward at full-steam.

Despite the demolition of the colonnade, the La Jolla Historical Society was able to salvage one of the two pergola structures and has since installed the fiberglass and steel assembly in a nearby garden that is free to the public and open for visitors.

Selldorf Architects’ additions are scheduled to be completed in 2021.

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