The de Young Museum Revisited

Of the more than three million visitors to the de Young Museum since it opened, few would have realized that their experience took place inside a kind of cocoon filled with the mechanisms and structural elements that make the building work, but, like our bodily workings, are hidden away. This article about the “who, what, where, and why” of these secrets intends to increase our understanding of the building and the pleasure of visiting it.

De Young Museum SF


The building’s long gently mounded form recalls the park’s original topography of sand dunes. The dunes are long gone and, given the park’s lush vegetation, it is even hard to imagine them. Still, it is sand, not dirt, that exists beneath the park’s man-made surface; tons of it were hauled away during excavation for the new building.


At the museum’s southwest end the downward sloping roof ends in a cantilever that overhangs the terrace outside the cafe. The terrace merges with the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, which shades into the Japanese Tea Garden beyond. A tower at the northeast corner commemorates the one that rose above the former building. The two structures link the museum to its narrow site between the Music Concourse and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Drive to the larger park.

Textured Copper SkinThe architects’ desire to have the building blend into the park led to their wrapping it in a skin of textured copper based on photos of the park’s tree canopies. The photos were converted into abstract patterns embossed in the form of “dimples and pimples” with different degrees of depth, which were stamped on the copper panels that camouflage the structure.

The perforated panels, used where the intake or exhaust of air was needed, have punched holes of different sizes that follow orthogonal patterns.

De Young's Skin This effect was not achieved effortlessly because the building’s surface requirements and its geometry varied with the panels’ location. A special team assumed the task of attaching the 7,200 panels–no two alike–to the structure. Although the perforated skin does not give the building a gauzy transparency, sunlight creates a continuous rippling effect over the walls that conveys movement.

At this writing the copper skin has darkened to an unappealing cinnamon color that makes the building go dead on foggy days and has prompted comparison to a rusted aircraft carrier. But when oxidation has turned the copper green the building will merge more harmoniously with its leafy surroundings. The designers saw the gradual greening as a natural cycle in keeping with that of the park. Yet, even they may not have realized that, in the opinion of some metallurgists, San Francisco ’s mild climate may cause this process, if unaided, to take a half century or so to occur.

The landscaping that Walter Hood designed for the museum’s front yard addresses subtle issues of maintenance and use. The palms, some of which already existed, provide tree presence without requiring trimming to prevent hiding the building.

Landscape Architecture at De Young

From the drive between the Music Concourse and the museum’s facade the viewer sees the palm trees rising from an unbroken carpet of grass. But as the entry path is approached, a series of narrow stone paths appears to connect the areas on either side of the walkway. Benches are set intermittently on the paths.

Landscape Architecture at de Young

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