‘Bringing art to people’: Lead architect for Museum of Contemporary Art renovation lays out her vision

A rendering shows a seagull's-eye view of the renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location.
(Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)

Annabelle Selldorf, lead architect for the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, says her work process is “fueled by specificity.”

She outlined that vision April 29 during MCASD’s Axeline Lecture, a yearly series that highlights artists. The lecture, held virtually this year, included her comments on earlier projects.

Selldorf’s firm, Selldorf Architects, established in 1988, has worked on a variety of public and private, residential, commercial and industrial projects worldwide, including in New York, France and Zambia.

The MCASD expansion, begun in 2017, will double its size, quadruple its gallery space and add a public park.

The original building was designed by Irving Gill for Ellen Browning Scripps, who lived there after its completion in 1916, following the destruction in a fire of her earlier home on the site in 1915.

Gill’s “devotion to making clear, simple, sincere spaces was forever unwavering,” Selldorf said.

After Scripps’ death, the building, at 700 Prospect St., became The Art Center in 1941 and evolved into MCASD, undergoing several renovations. Two of the most significant were a series of expansions by architectural firm Mosher & Drew in 1950, 1960 and the late 1970s and a renovation by Venturi Scott Brown in 1996.

When Selldorf Architects was approached for the current expansion, “we created a geometry that would marry these different parts,” Selldorf said.

Selldorf’s plans for the current renovation work “with our architectural legacy,” said MCASD’s chief executive, Kathryn Kanjo, “repurposing existing spaces and … adding gracious new galleries and public amenities.”

“This building is about bringing art to people, about opening to the fantastic views, about inviting the town to be welcome in this building, and to honor and do justice to the different periods of time in which the museum developed,” Selldorf said.

Annabelle Selldorf showed additions and renovations to existing MCASD buildings at the museum's Axeline Lecture on April 29.
Annabelle Selldorf showed additions and renovations to existing Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego buildings during the museum’s annual Axeline Lecture on April 29.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The plans, she said, take “advantage of the beautiful Southern California light, and in a grand loop, engage all of the spaces, making a kind of grand tour of different scaled spaces to do justice to the collection but also to really be inviting to the community and providing services that go beyond just museum exhibitions [and] having educational programs.”

The renovated museum will have “an entire exterior pass that leads you around the building,” Selldorf said.

In addressing how she incorporated the character of La Jolla into her design, Selldorf said “there is no such thing as a neutral space. … The experience of the place is as important as the experience of a good art gallery sequence. You want the experience to be unadulterated, but you also want it to be specific.”

Kanjo told Selldorf that “we charged you with creating a building that was respectful to The Village and to the coast, and that’s what you delivered.”

“When you come into the building, we want you to look at the art, we want you to go buy things in the store, but if you turn and look out, you see The Village framed in really exquisite ways,” she said.

On the ocean-facing side, Kanjo said, visitors will see “dramatic views from the windows that face Coast [Boulevard]. The ocean is undeniable.”

When asked how she thought about the impact of sound in the museum’s design, Selldorf said: “Sound is such an interesting thing, because I’m not fond of noise. But at the same time, you don’t want things to be overly silent. So I think there’s a sort of middle ground there.

“I can best describe it via the notion of memory. I think we memorize spaces in part by sound. … The melody of tranquillity, the voices of silence resonate with you in your memory.”

Kanjo said Selldorf brings a “purposeful sense of space and a kind of modern clarity” to her projects, noting that the architect answered the museum’s call to be “mindful of the scale of The Village. We didn’t want to have some kind of dramatic silhouette on our property.”

The museum has been closed during the renovation, which is expected to be complete in October. Kanjo said there will be preview events later this year, but the museum will not open to the public until April 2022. ◆