Downtown San Diego's residential boom is both a way of life and a means to a way of life. The developers are here to stay, and they aren't catering to a customer base so much as to a center-city lifestyle, with its spit-shined façade and pockets of cool addresses. For many of those residents (to say nothing of the builders), the Jan. 21 public opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) downtown campus is nothing but the best of news.
The facility, after all, is within laughably easy reach of Petco Park, Copley Symphony Hall, Horton Plaza and its spiffed-out Lyceum theater spaces and scores of galleries, shops and restaurants. Its west-facing rear windows look out over a handsome concourse and the Santa Fe Depot, a working rail stop, where trolley, Amtrak and Coaster cars disperse through some of the city's busiest corridors. Ocean-going transport is just down the road and Lindbergh Field a short cab ride away, rounding out the urban climate that swirls about the building from all directions.
Differences of opinion characterize the $25 million project as well. A curbside survey revealed a touch of aesthetic distaste: One passerby called the museum's David C. Copley Building "an eyesore," while another said the three-story concrete and metal square looked like a jack-in-the-box on steroids.
Hugh Davies, MCASD director, is too busy to pay the detractors much mind. A recent Monday noontime found him firmly wedged between the pages of his daytimer, with only a sliver of breathing room between meetings in San Diego and La Jolla, home of the museum's flagship venue. When the La Jolla facility opened in 1941, contemporary art was arguably a different animal. Today, Davies said, the genre is under a welcome wave of assault from other media. Photography, theater, dance, music, spoken-word and refinements of traditional forms are finding ways into the contemporary visual-art scene as the public clamors for greater artistic spectacle.
"It would [therefore] be hard," Davies said, "to conceive of an adaptive reuse of this historic venue that would preserve as much of its original character as its use as a museum does."
The "historic venue" is formally called the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Building, after its household-name benefactors, and it features an extensive revampment of the Santa Fe Depot baggage building, constructed in 1915 for the city's Panama-California Exposition. The enormous leaded deco windows; the wild variations in the four main galleries' sizes and ambient light; even the exposed ductwork that acts as its own permanent exhibit: The Spanish Colonial-style building has waited for this moment, its nearly 14,000 square feet poised to field whatever the public chooses to throw.
The museum, located at 1100 Kettner Blvd. and for which ground was broken in August of 2005, was designed by Richard Gluckman of New York's Gluckman Mayner Architects. Gluckman, who's had a hand in a number of museum expansions nationwide, worked alongside Milford Wayne Donaldson, a San Diego architect, on the historical aspects of the baggage building preservation effort. In the inaugural issue of View, the museum's quarterly magazine, Gluckman addressed the museum's location, which finds it in the middle of so many urban adornments.
"I've never designed a museum with the urban situation of the adjacent transportation system," Gluckman said. "We had to consider aspects of accessibility and transparency as well as issues of acoustics and air quality. The true integration of art and architecture is often a goal, and here it has been achieved in a truly collaborative way."
Steroids Guy probably wouldn't understand all that, and maybe he's not alone. The Jacobs building's creamy hue, graceful, stately arches and weathered pantile roof do meet abruptly with the Copley's crimson, insistent corners and parallel edges to the immediate north; at first, the seam locks the structures in mortal combat for the turf near where Kettner intersects West B Street. It's a strange juxtaposition, and it's likely turned a lot of heads around here-but, as Davies tells it, it was actually visited on the public out of necessity.
Current historic-preservation laws, Davies explained, say that an addition should be "complementary but contrasting. What they don't want is ersatz, fake historic so that when you come to a building you can't tell what is original and what is new. That philosophy has fueled the new regulations for historic preservation at the federal level."
The regulations are administered by the federal Department of the Interior.
If there's no mistaking the differences in the buildings themselves, there's also little similarity in their purposes. The Copley venue, made possible through the support of San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David C. Copley, is the more officious of the two-the nearly 16,000-square foot building contains no gallery space but houses a 120-seat room for lectures, an area for children's classes and the museum's curatorial spaces. And on Jan. 21, it will yield the floor to the old baggage space as the public gets its first look at what's behind the buzz.
Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto (who uses aromatic spices in his work); a collection by several mid-20th-century American masters, including Andy Warhol; a video piece on death and grief by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila; and two site-specific murals by Scottish painter Richard Wright are on tap. One of the Wright pieces catches Davies' eye before he glances at his cell-phone clock, ever-mindful of his impossible day.
"Look at that gold leaf on glass," he said almost inaudibly as he paused below one of the Wright pieces. "To me, it looks almost like a 19th-century book engraving. It could've been done by Gustave Doré or somebody like that." Amid contemporary circles, even the 19th century is in bounds.
At last count, downtown's residential population clocked in at about 30,000, a number that's expected to triple by 2030-that means three times the search for adventure as the local urban lifestyle takes on legendary proportions. A lot can happen in the intervening 23 years. Meanwhile, the museum campus is a prime addition to the veneer San Diego seems to think it wants to exploit. It's clean and smart and hip and user-friendly and civic-oriented and well-located, things that characterize all of the downtown's newer amenities. Like contemporary art itself, it accommodates shifting public tastes on a dime-and in 2007, that's all that matters.
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego will hold a free public opening event from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21 at its downtown campus, 1100 Kettner Blvd. 858-454-3541. www.mcasd.org