San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets)
San Francisco
California  94103

Mario Botta/HOK 1995

SFMOMA is a classic Mario Botta building: it is big, broad-chested and very strong.  Located in a dense urban environment, its strong symmetry, bold massing and heavy masonry allow it to hold its own among the surrounding buildings that are many times its size. Justin Henderson, author of a book on the building, writes: “Botta’s building for SFMOMA derives its power from many sources: the masterly orchestration of pure geometric form on a grand scale, the integration of plain materials such as brick and sheetrock with the richer textures of stone and marble, and the subtle workings of light in elegant, well-proportioned galleries.” From the exterior, the signature element is the truncated, zebra-striped cylinder that rises out of the red brick base. This “turret” is topped with a sloped glass skylight, creating a glowing lantern at night and providing daylight into the heart of the building by day.

The entire building is organized around a central atrium (lit from above by the turret) that is surrounded on all sides by opaque galleries and museum spaces.  There is no indication of the atrium from the exterior, the bold massing of the building is almost entirely opaque.  Only the street level entry penetrates the formidable brick exterior.  Once inside, the atrium is revealed as a protected sanctuary, isolated from the busy city outside.  From the base of the atrium, one can see to the apex of the turret as the eye is drawn up by the monumental stair on its climb to the daylight source more than 130 feet above.

Several design elements are worth exploring; the clarity of the plan, the progression of the monumental stair & bridge, the crisp galleries and rigorous detailing.

Clear Plan: Botta seems most willful in development of his plans and SFMOMA is no exception. The symmetry is unyielding, the axes are never violated; it is in essence a symmetrical donut. The public space of the atrium is the donut hole, and the monumental stairs make clear how to move between levels. The donut itself is four floors of gallery space, all above the main floor. After making a circuit on a floor, one is conveniently returned to the atrium and the monumental stair, ready to move to another level.

Monumental Stair/Bridge: The monumental stair rises within the atrium up to the fourth floor. The stairs from the first to second floors are very confined and dark as they create a transitional passage prior to actually entering the galleries. The stairs between levels two and three are more open and interact with the atrium space. As one rises to the fourth floor, the stairs are fully open to the circular turret above.  From the fourth floor, a pair of contained stairs surround the turret as one rises to the highest (fifth) level. The progression culminates at the bridge that actually crosses the turret for access to the fifth floor galleries. The bridge itself has see through grating; it is as if you are walking within the light, floating above the temporal world. (Elevators provide an alternate access route for those not up to such drama). The experience from the atrium floor up and through the bridge is an amazing and rich architectural sequence; few places are as powerful and dramatic as this.

Crisp Galleries:  The galleries are quite simply done.  They are typically arranged as a horseshoe shaped enfilade of spaces, not surprisingly with wood floors and white painted walls. Botta was very clever in coordinating which galleries receive natural light from above and which are totally isolated from daylight.

Rigorous Detailing:  Every detail I saw rigorously adhered to the geometry of the building, whether it was the overall symmetry or the vertical module rendered in the alternating bands of polished and thermal finished black granite. The black granite is remarkably successful in reflecting light and other building elements; it does not seem oppressive at all. It is a fitting contrast to the light-filled turret above. Once you start looking, another layer of building is revealed in the striped reflections. For all of its rigor, my only real dissatisfaction was that the building at times felt over done, almost suffocating itself in the modules. This is most evident in the striped black granite floor and round column bases.

For some interesting interior detailing, take time to find the Koret Visitor Information Center on the second floor. It is open to the public. The reception desk, computer stations and sliding glass panels over the bookcases are wonderfully executed; the details are almost playful when compared to rigorous detailing of the rest of the building.

To my surprise, the exterior masonry of the building is not laid brick by brick, but is brick on precast concrete panels. Botta has gone to a great deal of trouble to place each brick to create precise shadow patterns on the opaque walls; the building almost shimmers when the clear California sun is out.

Steve Robinson 2006


How to visit

SFMOMA is located in the up and coming “south of Market Street” district of the City. It is easily accessed on foot. The San Francisco Muni Line F goes within 2 blocks; exit at the Montgomery or Powell Street Stations, walk on Market to 3rd Street, turn south and the museum will be on the left.

It is a public museum and is open from 11am – 5:45pm except Wednesdays. Admission for my visit was $12.50. The museum is also open until 8:45pm on Thursdays. Confirm current opening times at or call +1 415 357 4000.


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