The Art of Architecture

An extraordinary arts community sprouted in the fields of UC Davis in the 1960s. Now, with the opening of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum, a building every bit as innovative as the art it houses, the legacy of that improbable era of California art history is on glorious display for all to see—and touch.
Rendering by Iwan Baan courtesy of SO-IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Shadow play: The Manetti Shrem Museum’s canopy is composed of 952 perforated aluminum beams that allow light to filter down throughout the day.
The new Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum looks as if it has settled lightly on the Davis landscape, like the skeleton of an enormous fallen leaf. Looking up through the 952 perforated, triangular aluminum beams, the beauty of the building’s fractal geometry is as deeply satisfying to the human eye as any view through a cathedral-like canopy of trees. That’s by design, says co-architect Florian Idenburg, of SO-IL in New York. The beams are triangular in profile to lend them rigidity, to be sure, but also for aesthetics. Says Idenburg, who was influenced by visits to the campus arboretum in coming up with the concept for the 50,000-square-foot undulating canopy that bridges the interior and exterior spaces of the museum, “The triangle harvests the light, which comes in, bounces around within the triangle before it comes down on the space underneath.”

If you’ve felt the soothing caress of tree-dappled light on your face during a lazy picnic, that’s the sensation he’s talking about.I

By rendering the building in 3-D and mapping the movement of the sun over the course of a day—and the course of a year—the museum’s architects orchestrated the exact placement of the canopy’s overhangs to shield the exhibition spaces from harmful UV rays while allowing for open vistas throughout the structure. Because of this ongoing interaction with daylight, Manetti Shrem feels as if it is in constant motion. It’s a technology-assisted wonder, achieving a Zen-like simplicity by way of breathtaking, superhuman, number-crunching complexity. As such, the building is a joyous ode to both nature and high-level mathematics.

The additional influences on Idenburg and the project’s other architect, Karl Backus, were the horizontality of the nearby low, patchwork landscape of crops, and the simple nobility of the kinds of materials you’d typically see in agricultural industrial buildings: concrete, glass, steel, aluminum. “We looked at vernacular structures,” Idenburg says, “like sheds, the greenhouses on campus, agricultural netting. Then there was a lot of dialogue.”

Inexpensive construction materials such as prefab concrete helped keep the project on budget, and stay true to the designers’ ag-inspired vision. “Using relatively economical concrete panels became a nice feature,” says Backus. “We were able to modify the rib pattern [of the concrete] to give it a little unique rhythm. It makes it distinctive, but at the same time it has a degree of industrial humility. It’s a simple material.”

The museum’s layout mimics the landscape it inhabits, with a grid representing the agricultural fields and the contours of the natural world. (Photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of SO-IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson)

Both Idenburg and Backus had independently approached the museum’s builder, Whiting-Turner, with interest in the project, unaware of each other’s existence. UC Davis had announced a somewhat unusual design/build competition in which a construction firm was required to take the lead, partnering with an architect or architects to submit an end-to-end, fixed-bid proposal. Whiting-Turner, which has a lot of experience constructing university buildings, recognized the opportunity for synergy and balance between the two firms, so it invited both architects to join the project as equal partners.

The rest of the discussion took place between this triple-threat team and Manetti Shrem’s director, Rachel Teagle, who wanted the structure to reflect the story and ideals of the group of artists whose passionate collaboration over a charmed period of years beginning in the late 1950s caused an artistic movement to grow and flourish at UC Davis, and whose work forms the backbone of the museum’s collection.

In 1951, the school outgrew its role as an ag-focused offshoot of UC Berkeley and established a College of Letters and Science. Eight years later, UCD launched its art department, with painter Richard Nelson at the helm. Tasked with creating a program from the ground up, Nelson hired a diverse core group over the next few years that included Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson. Then something clicked.

Think of Dada, De Stijl, the Beat Generation, Fluxus: Art history is rife with stories of tight communities of artists who took advantage of close quarters to stoke the fires of one another’s geniuses. The artists at UC Davis, plunked down in the isolated environs of what moments earlier had been an agricultural college, formed an extraordinary creative community.

“One of the things that surprised me when we really started digging into our history is how open the entire department was,” says Teagle. “Not just the faculty, but between faculty and students, how open they were in terms of exchange of ideas, in terms of exchange of objects. They collected each other’s work, they bought each other’s work, they traded each other’s work, and they made art about each other’s work. They were really deeply engaged with one another.”

By mapping the movement of the sun over the course of a day, the museum’s architects orchestrated the exact placement of the canopy’s overhangs to shield the exhibition spaces from harmful UV rays while allowing for open vistas.

By the 1960s, Davis had a reputation as a proving ground to rival New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The university is widely credited as being the nexus of the funk art movement, a distinctive Northern California style that’s exuberant, irreverent and splashy, like De Forest’s dense, comical landscapes that look like Homer Simpson on a peyote trip. Then there are Arneson’s whimsical ceramic half-animal self-portraits as “Bob the dog” and his series of humorously obscene toilets. Arneson almost single-handedly made ceramics a legitimate medium in the fine art world (the shed-like campus building where he and others worked, Temporary Building 9, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places). His colleague Thiebaud, who is most famous for his colorful portraits of food, is today listed as the sixth best-selling living artist in the world, and the nonagenarian was still teaching at UCD until quite recently.

It was not all hearts and flowers, however. “Just last week Wayne [Thiebaud] was on campus and somebody said, ‘So you guys really liked each other. It must have been a great time.’ And Wayne laughed and said, ‘No, we fought all the time,’ ” Teagle says. “But he meant it as a positive thing. Part of the secret sauce is that they challenged each other, provoked each other and were competitive, and that helped them flourish.”

So when it came time to build a museum, Teagle wanted the place to be an homage to the highly interactive style in which these artists worked and taught. “That’s where we get into the idea of exchange,” she says, of the theme that emerged, adding, “We know from a lot of studies that have been done on museums that hands-on learning, the opportunity to make [art], is the most profound way for people to have an art experience.”

“There are two features that are evident right at the front edge of the building,” says Backus, “which are the event plaza and the education wing, which has a classroom and art studio and art-making yard.”

The building was designed to create an indoor-outdoor feel, with sweeping walls of glass wherever possible. (Photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of SO-IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson)

Idenburg relates it back to agriculture, too. “In the Central Valley, nature is not necessarily something romantic, but something that is cultivated and evolving,” he says. “We wanted to include that idea of process, of making, of production.”

So the first thing the visitor encounters upon approaching the main entrance of the museum—which is free and open to the public—isn’t a gallery, but a multimedia workshop with equipment for silk screening, sculpting and painting, where, during scheduled sessions, they are encouraged not just to look at art, but go on in and make some.

The Manetti Shrem team also wanted the museum to provide a meaningful experience for students. “Many of [them] focus on agricultural subjects,” says Idenburg. “The arts are not part of their culture and upbringing.”

“Hopefully for many of the visitors it’ll be a rejuvenation or spark to explore their own creative side,” adds Backus.

“In most museums the classroom spaces are in the basement, or maybe in the back,” Teagle points out. “I’m so proud that the very first things people will see when they walk up to the museum are our classrooms.”

The “Out Our Way” exhibit features work by many of the artists who were part of the first generation of UC Davis’ legendary art faculty, including paintings by Wayne Thiebaud (far right) and Roy De Forest (far left). (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

The shady pavilion space under the front canopy is another interactive area. “This event plaza could be staged for movie nights, for hanging exhibits, for gala dinners,” Backus says. It would be easy to see this space attracting street performers and artists to the point where the impromptu art happening outside rivals the official happenings inside, as is the case with the plaza in front of the 1977 Centre Pompidou in Paris. Artist Sandra Shannonhouse, who was married to Robert Arneson until his death in 1992, has installed an outdoor public sculpture consisting of two metal skirts that visitors are encouraged to “wear” by stepping inside them. Having earned an MFA in “Visual Aspects of Dramatic Art” from UCD in the early ’70s, she is herself the product of the Davis art department’s history of openness and accessibility. “The interdepartmental work between music, art and drama at that time just burgeoned—it was really exciting,” she says.

Teagle was beginning to see the museum’s interactivity unfold even before the museum opened its doors in November. “I was there on a Saturday [in October] and there was a posse of undergrads doing fashion shoots,” she says. “People are there all the time taking pictures. Not only do they feel the dynamism of the light, they’re playing with it with photography.”

Around the corner is another interactive sculpture—a 4,000-pound gong by Wiley that visitors can strike either with a mallet or by swinging a suspended wooden battering ram. This is the rare museum where you can hit the art and where you can make loud noises. Its design is so permeable, with invisibly supported walls of glass wherever possible, that the view through the lobby to the inner courtyard is unobstructed. (Backus’ Pennsylvania-based firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is best known for giving us the iconic Apple stores—hence his love of sweeping glass walls.) The sense of place is so palpable that even when the museum is closed for the day, it maintains the feeling of being active, in keeping with the design team’s vision of a 24/7 public space.

An architectural trend is emerging in the Sacramento region that is exciting to witness, this tendency toward organic, open, climate-aware, site-specific forms that play with the nearby landscape and reference our agricultural roots.

But the design challenges didn’t begin or end with the interactivity factor. Most museums are “jewel boxes,” closed sets for the display of fine art with little to no daylight entering the picture, in part because artificial lighting is easier to control, but also because UV rays can be damaging to the art itself. Idenburg and Backus had to blend the open, organic elements while still providing daylight-controlled “museum quality” interior spaces for the display of art. Again, the region’s agricultural landscape served as inspiration. “[The design] was a bit of a reference to the way the land is cultivated,” Backus says. “There are some places that are distinctly gridded, and then there are some places influenced by the flow of a river, so you start to introduce irregularities into the grid.” Accordingly, the more traditionally gridded display spaces are loosely contained within the free-form organic whole of the structure, much the way cultivated fields might nestle in the organic shape of a valley.

The design has a few points in common with the new Golden 1 Center, both being the types of public buildings that are typically closed off, with a sense that once you’re inside, that you could be anywhere—or nowhere. Instead, the museum, like the arena, manages to fulfill its function while keeping a gracious openness and sensitivity to its surroundings.

An architectural trend is emerging in the Sacramento region that is as exciting to witness as the Davis art scene must have been in the ’60s, this tendency toward organic, open, climate-aware, site-specific forms that play with the nearby landscape and reference our agricultural roots. If one were to visit the Golden 1 Center, the Barn in West Sacramento and now the Manetti Shrem Museum, one could be forgiven for thinking we are on the cusp of an architectural era every bit as distinctive as the Bauhaus. The buildings share nature-derived textures and form factors, an emphasis on open airflow and framed views, and, above all, participation in the surrounding terrain in a way that is human-scaled and accessible without sacrificing the soaring, uplifting emotionality of the grand architectural gesture.

A collection of Robert Arneson’s famous ceramic toilets is displayed prominently in “Out Our Way.” (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

What makes these commonalities all the more astonishing is that the architects responsible for these projects were largely unaware of each other’s work. Both Idenburg and the Barn’s designer, Jerry van Eyck, are Dutch, and Idenburg points out that the Central Valley’s levees and lowlands are reminiscent of the Dutch landscape. But Idenburg speculates that the common thread may be more than geographical. “If you asked Frank Gehry to make a building, it didn’t really matter where it was or what would go in it—it would still look the same,” he says. “Now there is a generation of architects who have sensitivity to site and climate.” Not to mention, the desire to create something of unique beauty that couldn’t—and shouldn’t—exist anywhere else in the world. 

Great buildings make one’s heart stop a little, and the Manetti Shrem Museum certainly does, but it’s not an exercise in shock and awe. It’s more the kind of high you get when you meet someone who really gets you, the way Idenburg and Backus get the Central Valley, and the campus, and the students and the artists whose collaboration inspired theirs.

“We wanted a museum that was specific to our place, a museum that reflected UC Davis and our history,” Teagle says. “[Idenburg and Backus] really wanted to avoid a building that looked like it could’ve been anywhere in the world and just happened to be plopped down in Davis. What they were thinking about was, ‘What is this place about?’ I think it’s so exciting that architects are thinking about our buildings that way now.” S