Friday, September 7, 2007

San Francisco – Day 3

The day started off overcast and chilly, a perfect day for a museum. A 15 dollar cab ride to Golden Gate Park, through sleepy Sunday morning neighborhoods, and we’re at the de Young Museum just as it opens.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not much impressed nor interested in modern architecture. Not because I so love old architecture, but because so much of new architecture simply doesn’t work. A building should have an entrance that you can find, it should have a form that doesn’t make you feel creeped out or brutalized, it should have windows to let in light, its interior should be laid out to function well for what it is meant for. And it shouldn’t look like a giant piece of feces. Which are essentially all the problems of the de Young.

Our docent spent quite a bit of time defending the new building, always a tip-off that maybe it ain’t so great. They torn down the old museum, a classically inspired stone structure, because it was “the most seismically unsound building in San Francisco.” After spending however much money it costs to tear down a huge building and cart it all away, they then spend 200 million dollars to build the new museum designed by the “renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco.” I bet they could have spent all that money on Mel’s Concrete Contracting and Seismic Engineering Services, LLC, and made the old museum seismically sound, but how can you brag about that? The new building, for some reason, is covered in copper. Right now, the copper is (feces) brown. Eventually, it will be green, which, the docent assured us, will be better.

As we approached the de Young from the drive, we couldn’t find the entrance. It is tucked back in a triangular court yard reminiscent of a prison exercise yard, although without the symmetry or romance. There are some glass doors back in there that might have been for the cleaning staff. The entrance was not prominent, and there were no signs telling you where the entrance was or when you had actually found it. I suppose that’s part of the experience of the building, a hallmark of “renowned” architecture.

Inside, the building is confusing, and seems to use space extremely inefficiently. The lobby area is vast and empty, but, we were told, the large windows that look out on narrow triangular interior courtyards filled with vegetation (or “weeds”) helped bring the outside inside. (Personally, if I wanted to be outside, I’d go outside. I came inside to be outside of the outside, not inside the outside, and so on.)

The American art collection housed at the de Young is quite nice, and Golden Gate Park that surrounds the museum is very nice. And, actually, the cafeteria serves good food at reasonable prices and is quite pleasant. So I thoroughly enjoyed my half day there, trashing the architecture and looking at the art.

We walked back down towards our hotel through Haight Ashbury. It’s very hard for me not to sound like a crotchety old man when I say things like “why would perfectly healthy young suburban teens and twenty-somethings choose to sit around in dirty clothing begging for money on Haight Street?” Not just one of them. Scores of them, amid the head shops and touristy bars and cafes. I suppose the only plausible explanation is that I’m old and I have a job and I’m a “square.”

A trip back along the edge of the Tenderloin on Market Street, a quick visit to SOMA, and a wonderful dinner at Trattoria Contadina, another Michelin recommendation, rounded out a fun day. Contadina is at Union and Mason Streets, over the hill from our hotel, on the cable car line.

All through dinner, I watched the cable cars go by, timing them, enabling us to dash out just as one came up the hill and hop on. The ride was a bit chilly, but the views were spectacular, especially at night, and we actually used the cable car for real transportation, not just as an amusement ride. It beat the heck out of walking back up Nob Hill. The cable car got stuck at the top of a hill on a flat spot where it makes a left turn. The driver just didn’t time it right and it ran out of mojo (I think that’s what they run on), so he radioed for help. In about a minute, a pickup truck with a big plow on the front showed up and gave us a shove, and gravity did the rest.

Not a bad way to end our last night in San Francisco.