Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

October 15, 2015

The Wrestlers

DS+R's McMurtry Building at Stanford intertwines art and art history.


Architecture, Articles, Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The McMurtry Art & Art History Building opened on the Stanford University campus in early October. The 100,000 square-foot building is the second of three Diller Scofidio + Renfro designs to open on the West Coast. Squeezed between the red carpet opening of The Broad in September and the ribbon cutting for the Berkeley Art Museum early next year, the McMurtry is not a museum, but instead is dedicated to a pair programmatic twins: fine art and art history.

DS+R’s $87 million, three-story building is a riff on Stanford campus’ Mission Style typologies, a blocky massing around a central, wood-clad courtyard. Although the materials used on the exterior façade, patinated zinc cladding and apricot colored stucco, might seem a bit out of character for the New York-based firm, the choices were budget-minded and correspond to the warm hues of the campus architecture and the adjacent Cantor Arts Center, Stanford’s impressive art museum.

At a time when art departments routinely boast of interdisciplinary and theoretical leanings, Stanford remains more classical in its divisions, but with yearnings toward exchange. Architect Charles Renfro led the design with local BOORA Architects serving as architects of record. The resulting architectural parti is a wrestling hold out of Greek sculpture—a match of two equals. “The two programmatic strands, one zinc and one stucco, are intertwined and make a graphic read on the facade,” he explained. The art department, with its messy art spaces—light-filled with clerestory windows—are separated from the department of art history’s more bookish study carrels.

In-between the two programmatic opponents, the territory is neutral and, hopefully, collaborative, including the courtyard and library. In other places, deep persimmon-colored paint maps commonalities. Almost garish, it covers the walls in a wide open-air corridor that leads students into the courtyard from Roth Way. From the street, the space resembles a bright cut, a riotous slash in the otherwise polite façade.

The outdoor courtyard physically and visually links together many of the shared programs. Large windows look into the sculpture studio, and wood shop, and a gallery. Light sensitive programs, such as the video and photography labs, are located below grade, while a roof garden, or “sky court” provides makers and thinkers views across campus.

Achieving balance between separation and togetherness was also a structural challenge. Palo Alto (and all of the west) is a high seismic zone. Each of the diagonal “strands” is a bridge-like steel truss that is held off the ground on pins. This allows them to move independently from each other and from the central art and architecture library. DS+R worked with San Francisco-based Forell/Elsesser Engineers on the structural design. (The local firm had previously engineered Viñoly’s vertigo-inducing Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at USCF perched on a SF hillside.) According to architect and DS+R project lead David Chacon, buckling restrained braces (BRB) were used throughout McMurtry, which allowed the design team to forgo heavy sheer walls and open up more transparency between spaces.

The multipurpose Barbara and M. Kenneth Oshman Lecture Hall & Presentation Space is something of a DS+R typology in itself. In several of the firm’s projects feature performance space that has a glass or retractable rear wall. The ICA theater in Boston looks out over the city’s harbor and the Berkeley Art Museum will have a public screen on the street outside the main auditorium. Here, a bi-folding glass wall opens up to a shared lawn with the Cantor Arts Center. The plan is that the hall and the lawn will be used for events and performances that engage the campus. Once-siloed departments now open (quite literally) their doors to share their ideas with the Stanford community.