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Open Invitation

A new art museum is built with interaction in mind.

By Catherine Warmerdam
Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of SO–IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

One of the most architecturally significant buildings to be erected in the United States in the past year is right in Sacramento’s backyard. The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis earned high praise from numerous critics when it opened in November 2016. The Wall Street Journal included it on its list of best architecture of 2016. And Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times called the museum “a building to boost your faith in the future of American architecture.”

Manetti Shrem Art Museum

The architects used the museum’s philosophy of ‘art wide open’ to guide their design.

The museum’s signature feature is its 50,000-square-foot “grand canopy,” which hovers over the building’s pavilions like a bright-white exoskeleton, providing both architectural interest and a wide swath of shade around the perimeter. Constructed of perforated aluminum beams that softly filter the sunlight, the canopy serves as a frame for the informal gathering spaces surrounding the exterior that beckon visitors to come and linger.

The Manetti Shrem was built in part to showcase the nearly 6,000-piece art collection held by the university that, until now, didn’t have adequate museum space in which to be displayed. But exhibiting art is hardly the museum’s only function. This is a space dedicated to learning, a mission that is lived out faithfully through the building’s design.

The two architecture firms behind the Manetti Shrem—SO – IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson—used the museum’s philosophy of “art wide open” to guide their design. They shrewdly chose to locate classrooms and studio space directly off the main lobby, connecting them to the building’s core via expansive windows and a glass roll-up door. Walls of windows, sometimes in unexpected places, also emphasize permeability, both physical and metaphorical. While too many art museums possess a hermetic quality that aspires to keep the outside world at bay, the Manetti Shrem, which is free to visit, beautifully makes the case for openness and accessibility. (The museum will be closed from July 1 to Sept. 17 while new exhibits are installed.)

The staff rejected the idea of producing maps or audio tours, opting instead to allow visitors to wander through the space unfettered, guided only by their own curiosity. It was a smart decision. There is no getting lost here, although no one would blame you for trying.

Manetti Shrem

The Manetti Shrem art museum located on the UC Davis campus.

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