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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Insights into UC Davis’ Architectural Celebrity

Manetti Shrem Museum stands as glimmer of hope for architecture on campus

UC Davis can be quite the dreary location if you fancy yourself an architectural enthusiast. Among the stucco and concrete box-like structures that riddle the campus, students are hard-pressed to find a building that evokes anything but a shrug. In the midst of this overwhelming mediocrity, however, one building rises above the rest. Located on the South East side of campus, the inviting and thoughtful design of The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art may be more than enough to inject the university with some much needed architectural life.

Since the museum opened its double glass doors to the public in November of 2016, it garnered widespread notoriety from national media outlets and architectural critics alike. Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote the Manetti Shrem is a building “to boost your faith in the future of American architecture.” In addition to Hawthorne’s praise, CNN’s Lifestyle Division listed the museum in its top 12 buildings that transformed cities around the world.

Initial steps for the Shrem were taken in 2011 when UC Davis introduced a program detailing a “high level vision” for building the school’s first art museum. A committee of carefully selected UC Davis faculty took on the task of turning this dream into reality. The process was fully set in motion when the school received a ten million dollar donation from the Manetti Shrem family to fund the endeavor.

Mark Kessler, a professor of design at UC Davis who closely followed and participated in the museum’s design process, noted the importance placed on the museum’s execution.

“We raised money to make something special, to break the tradition of second rate architecture,” Kessler said. “And in consideration of the fact that it was the university art museum, it was especially important to get this one right, and to pour a little more funds and more attention into the hiring of the architect.”

The architecture duo chosen by the faculty was a collaborative partnership between SO-IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, two internationally-recognized design firms based out of New York and San Francisco respectively.

Rachel Teagle, the founding director of the museum, emphasized the committee’s confidence in their decision.

“SO-IL was a unanimous decision yes for the jury because they took our goals to the next level,” Teagle said.

Designing the campus’s first art museum presented a challenging and unique opportunity for the firms.

“A puzzle for us was that the building was on the edge of campus, said Ted Baab, a senior associate at SO-IL, who is familiar with the project. “It’s an extension of the campus as a whole. It creates continuity to the campus around it to make it a crossroads at intersection of students coming, going and passing through.”

The underlying vision that informed the creative process was the team’s intention to create a structure that was welcoming, adaptive and unconstrained by the museum label.

“One of the key design goals was to not make the museum a closed and hermetic experience but something open, connected, and interactive,” Baab said.

The primary feature implemented to meet this goal is the building’s iconic 50,000-square-foot perforated aluminum grand canopy which looms above the roof and extends over campus.

“Using the canopy for shading space allows the exterior space to be used as an extension of the building,” Baab said.

This extension of shade in the building’s outdoor area invites students to sit, chat and reset as they go about their day.

In addition to addressing their design’s intention, the grand canopy acts as a structural light filter, creating a dynamic exterior.

“We designed the canopy to produce a variety of different lighting types and spatial conditions underneath,” Baab said about the grand canopy’s lighting effect. “Even though it’s one continuous space there are some areas that are narrow and very tall and some areas that are low and more intimate. There are different densities of shading as well.”

Teagle said this relationship with light was one of her favorite aspects.

“I think the building really feels special because of the way it embraces light,” Teagle said. “With the shadows coming off the canopy changing over the course of the day you really can feel the passage of time.”

Although the signature grand canopy has amassed considerable praise, it should be noted that some still doubt whether it has fulfilled its original architectural intention.

“A good proportion of the space is given to a grand canopy that as time goes on will be increasingly viewed as a curiosity,” Kessler said. “Something that quite hasn’t found its reason to be. A kind of no man’s land, a rather overdeveloped no man’s land. It certainly is a kind of cautionary tale for future architects and their clients.”

Kessler elaborated on his position, citing the museum’s location on the periphery of campus as a major reason for why its design falls short.

In spite of his criticism, Kessler also stated that “the campus did a great job. They succeeded in putting UC Davis finally on the map architecturally with a very good building.”

The museum also boasts a LEED Platinum sustainable certification that more than exceeds university standards. This accomplishment puts the museum amongst the best in conserving energy and utilizing sustainable design and materials.

Baab remarked on how the building’s sustainable specs were a byproduct of the museum’s canopy.

“The enclosed portions of the building could be quite efficient, as the expression and identity of the building actually are defined much more by the canopy.”

Whether the Manetti Shrem has met all of its original design intentions or not, it acts as a glimmer of hope for architecture on campus. Teagle summarized the impact of the building when reminiscing on comments of students who frequent the Shrem.

“One of the moments when I feel most proud is when students tell me that they feel special when they’re in the museum,” Tealge said. “That it’s so cool to have a building on campus that feels like a special place and makes them feel good. In our comment book, students write, ‘I feel seen at the Manetti Shrem Museum.’”

Written By: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org


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