MCA San Diego’s $105M Expansion Is An Odd, But Often Stunning Attempt To Create A ‘More Inclusive’ Museum

After a four-year wait and a $105 million expansion, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s reopening is a study in the changing shape of institutions. 

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the seaside neighborhood of La Jolla, the newly renovated complex is essentially two different buildings joined at the hip. 

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On the right, you’ll find a composite of white-stuccoed boxes, punctuated by curved windows that riff on the surrounding buildings’ Mediterranean-inspired archways. The first box was designed by celebrated modernist Irving Gill in 1916, and in later decades, more boxes were added by architects Mosher & Drew and Venturi Scott Brown & Associates (VSBA).

On the left, meanwhile, architect Annabelle Selldorf’s new expansion is roughly the same scale, but totally distinct in materiality. In lieu of stucco and curves, she chose a palette of glass walls, sandy-colored travertine, and aluminum beams joined at right angles.

All museum expansions, in a sense, are a type of rebranding, where new architecture coincides with a new public image. The two buildings’ odd union is emblematic of both the museum’s and the architect’s task: to align contemporary culture with a canonical history.       

“The goal of this project was to create a more inviting and inclusive museum with a greater connection to the community,” the architect said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony last Tuesday.  

The white Mediterranean-inspired entrance to the MCASD surrounded by palm trees.

The original Irving Gill facade at MCASD’s new La Jolla flagship by Selldorf Architects.

When Selldorf joined the project in 2014, the MCASD had issues to resolve, primarily the lack of space for its 5,600-piece collection. But the building was also an iconic bit of architecture that had perplexed visitors for years. Its cartoonishly fat columns, designed in 1996 by the beloved postmodernists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, obscured the front door in a way that was both a practical and symbolic problem. 

“A museum can feel somewhat hard for people to enter in the first place, and then we hid the entrance,” MCASD Board Chair Mark Jacobs explained in his remarks.  

Despite the outcry from Venturi Scott Brown fans, Selldorf replaced the columns with an entrance that, she said, “represents a true welcome for everyone.” 

Its glass walls are unobscured by a column-less aluminum brise-soleil, and the ticket counter is always visible from the outside. She and her team added 46,400 square feet of new build, effectively doubling the museum’s footprint while quadrupling its exhibition space. Skirting height restrictions on new construction, the existing auditorium was repurposed as a 20-foot-tall, 7,000-square-foot gallery.      

“If this isn’t museum sized, I don’t know what is,” Selldorf said as she led a tour of the building.

A Building With Views To Match The Art

An interior of the Cohn Gallery inside the MCASD, showing ocean views through three windows.

Installation view of the Cohn Gallery inside MCASD’s new La Jolla flagship by Selldorf Architects.

A favorite of gallerists David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and other high-profile members of the art world, Selldorf Architects operates with what’s best described as an elegant pragmatism. 

The MCASD’s new galleries possess clear circulation paths and a minimalist’s grandeur, where natural light fills generously proportioned, open spaces. Tall, thin windows frame exterior landmarks — individual palm trees, bell towers, and towering pines — alongside top-notch examples from the museum’s collection.

Roughly organized by era, there’s a triangular gallery of Color Field painters including Rothko, Morris, and Motherwell, and an enormous trapezoidal gallery for Light and Space artists like Gisela Colon, Larry Bell, and Peter Alexander. (Most galleries are normal rectangles, but these were pinched where the new construction connected to the old.) 

Rather than construct a new traditional auditorium, Selldorf added a more current “flexible events space,” a hallmark of contemporary museum architecture that provides a blank slate for more varied public programming. Here, that includes a luxurious floor-to-ceiling view of the ocean.  

The museum’s new luxurious Big Little Lies-esque views are not in fact “distractions from the art, but complementary,” Selldorf said twice during the museum preview, perhaps anticipating criticism. 

“For all of you who live here, the incredible light of Southern California and the incredible view of the Pacific Ocean is something you may take for granted,” the New York-based architect said. “We were thrilled to make it part and parcel of the experience. I think it will contribute to you remembering where you are, and what you have seen.” 

For the most part, the historically relevant architecture of the original building was left untouched, providing an interesting side-by-side study of how much the shape and culture of museums has changed. The interior has no demarcations between the old and new, though there is a distinct sensation of entering another era in the original space, a time when museums were perhaps considered less destinations than rarified containers for art. 

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On this older side, the relatively low-slung, windowless galleries with gray-and-white terrazzo floors form a warren that’s decidedly confusing to navigate. And the original VSBA lobby, still adorned on the ceiling with the architects’ metal-and-neon fins, is intact, but will likely be challenging to program. It still reads very much like a lobby, only without an entrance. 

The MCASD Is Adopting Curatorial Changes To Match The New Architecture

The artist Niki de Saint Phalle is pictured pointing a rifle towards a canvas.

Niki de Saint Phalle during a shooting session at Impasse Ronsin, Paris, 1962.

The museum approached Selldorf Architects in 2014 seeking “a new architecture” that would “reach our full potential as a community resource for culture and education,” Kathryn Kanjo, MCASD’s director and CEO, said during her walkthrough of the building. 

Her sentiments and Selldorf’s reflected the institutional reckoning that’s been going on for a decade or more, as museums have acknowledged their own exclusivity and lack of representation. Corrective measures are architectural as well as curatorial. Honoring its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico-border, MCASD emphasizes its commitment to showing and collecting artists in the region. Its first year of programming also emphasizes solo shows of women artists, starting with Nikki de Saint Phalle, followed by Alexis Smith and Celia Alvarez Muñoz.

The now-headlining “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is a sprawling survey of the late San Diego resident, co-presented with The Menil Collection, a Houston museum that houses the art collection of oil tycoons John and Dominique de Menil. The show fills the enormous former auditorium gallery with Nanas, Saint Phalle’s sculptures of archetypal women in defiant poses, and large-scale Tirs, or “shooting paintings,” goopy assemblages where the artist buried bags of paint in globs of plaster and shot them with a rifle. The most fragile pieces took years to secure on loan from European institutions, according to Menil senior curator Michelle White

“A lot of these works which are being shown in the United States for the first time may not come back,” she said during the exhibition preview. “We feel very lucky to have been able to bring together this group of work.” 

In the former VSBA lobby, a suite of works by various artists responding to the social and political tension on the San Diego-Tijuana border unfortunately recedes behind the space’s columns. Elsewhere, flanked by soaring galleries devoted to the movements of Pop Art and Hard-edge painting, the wall text in a modest mezzanine describes works from a group of Latinx artists “from the broader Americas,” made from the “1970s onward” as engaging in a “a range of issues” —these span Felipe Almada’s altar of religious and secular objects, including a figurine of Bart Simpson, to the surrealist portraiture of Daniela Gallois. 

I do wonder: As we retrofit art history with the underrepresented, will we categorize them as we did in the past, based on specific movements of formal exploration? Or will they be grouped by shared politics of representation, and broadly defined ethnic categories?

robert irwin's piece in the MCASD

Robert Irwin, 1°2°3°4°, 1997.

As values evolve, the way that the art and architecture of the present will be perceived by the future is anyone’s guess. When VSBA renovated the museum in 1996, critical of the previous Mosher & Drew overhaul, they described their own intervention — cartoon columns and all — as a restoration of Gill’s original vision that would be “more inviting for visitors.” Two decades later, Selldorf removed those columns citing the exact same reason, completing the cycle of modern to postmodern and back again. 

Trumping MCASD’s exquisite new building, and even its Primetime Emmy-caliber views, the museum’s must-see crown jewel remains the 1997 installation “1º2º3º4º” by San Diego’s own Robert Irwin. 

It’s a simple premise: three squares cut from the brown-tinted glass of a gallery facing the beach, resulting in an extraordinary effect on the viewer’s perception. The squares frame landmarks in the distance, somehow bringing them closer, while simultaneously making the sky bluer, as the ocean breeze and smell of salt permeate the gallery. 

Selldorf was right—the windows here are extremely memorable. 


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