I have made several pilgrimages to the de Young Museum in San Francisco by Herzog and de Meuron–always to stare at the building, wander around and take pictures. Last Saturday I was in SF to see a performance art piece by Sarah Wilson, Derrick Jones and Nehara Kalev that just happened to be at the de Young. It was wonderful to experience the building as part of everyday life and to be focusing on it, not as a THING, but as a place for experiencing art.

I have always been impressed with the way the building responds to its very eclectic art collection. Rather than trying to cram everything into a consistent or “one size fits all” set of galleries, the wide range of architectural environments celebrates the museum’s collections.

Early American paintings, furniture and silver look wonderfully rich and gracious in the well-proportioned, top-lit rooms that house them. Radically different artifacts from New Guinea look equally powerful in dimly lit, flowing spaces with dark casework and dramatic spot lighting. Contemporary art is in bright white abstract spaces where the pieces seem likewise resonant. The architecture seems to make the experience of the art richer and more intense and rewarding.

The same was true of the performance piece I went to see. But, in this case, the architecture had actually played an important part in generating the art.  Nahara Kalev told me at dinner afterward that many wonderful spots in the building had provoked ideas about performance–the abundant flights of stairs, the courtyard slivers filled with soft ferns, the forecourt/sallyport that draws you into the building, the entry court filled with a site-specific Andy Goldsworthy piece and the grand lobby space dominated by a Gerhart Richter (all three of which were prominent provocateurs). Even the extremely steep rake of the auditorium offered an unusual engagement with an aerial dance part of the piece that would have been impossible to imagine apart from the eccentrically tall quality of the space.

This is what great architecture does. It truly engages with place and purpose. I am working hard to resist the “thingness” that dominates architectural discussion these days.  It is inspiring to see real LIVING architecture having an impact beyond itself and beyond the subculture of architecture.  The de Young seems a quantum leap ahead, in this regard, of most of the monumental art museums that have been deemed important works of architecture over the last couple of decades.