Copper in the Arts

August 2010

Restoring the de Young Museum with Copper

By Janie Franz

de Young Museum Design firm Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Mueron, who purposely chose natural materials to help the building itself reflect and blend with the serene park setting.

Photograph courtesy of FAMSF

Sitting like a bright jewel in the middle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the de Young Museum is a stunning vision, covered with more than 7,000 copper panels.

But, this wasn’t always the case. Today’s de Young Museum is the copper clad vision of design firm Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who purposely chose natural materials to help the building itself reflect and blend with the serene park setting. The original structure, dating back to 1895, was damaged after a tragic earthquake struck San Fransisco in 1989, ruining the de Young Museum and it’s sister site, the Legion of Honor, located a few miles away. 

Though the idea to rebuild the museums was already being planned, the earthquake made it an urgent necessity and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco received immediate support from the community to begin work work on rebuilding the Legion of Honor first. It took 6 years to restore the Legion before the museums’ board of trustees turned their attention to the de Young Museum in 1995. 

“It was a bigger project because we had to start from the ground up,” Futernick added. Unfortunately, in the intervening six or so years, the public’s memory faded about the urgency of earthquakes and the Fine Arts Museums struggled to get funding and stood a storm of controversy about even having the museum in Golden Gate Park. Avid museum advocates soon urged the board to build on its current location.

inside the de Young MuseumA copper bench at the de Young Museum.

Photograph courtesy of FAMSF

Herzog and de Mueron and Fong and Chan Architects primarily designed the building from the inside out, leaving the exterior until last. Because the museum was being rebuilt on its original site, the building itself had a system of ball-bearing sliding plates and viscous fluid dampers installed so the whole museum can move up to three feet in the event of a future earthquake. In addition, the creative design team wanted to take advantage of the park setting. 

“It was really their idea to celebrate that in the building so that it would be unobtrusive and penetrate the park in a very easy and comfortable way,” Futernick said. “And they actually did that by bringing the park into the building. In traditional art museums, if you go inside, in a sense you cut yourself off from the rest of the world…. It was very much our idea and the architects' idea to make a building where the notion of the outside is regained on the inside. If you look at the building from an aerial photograph, you'll see cuts almost through the building where some of the landscape of the park is brought in.”

Almost fifty trees were planted in these interior courtyards and gardens. This was in addition to the 344 trees that were transplanted around five acres of new landscaping. In addition, state-of-the-art museum cases and floor-to-ceiling glass windows were installed so that museum guests could interact with the collections in as much natural light as possible.

The exterior, though, had been a mystery for some time. The designers considered traditional materials including concrete and glass. 

Copper exterior The exterior of the de Young Museum has more than 7,000 copper panels.

Photograph courtesy of FAMSF

“Then, I think the story goes,” Futernick explained, “they were jogging through the park and noticed the windmills out at the waters edge on the west end of the park. They have copper-clad roofs and domes. They were impressed by the way those had turned green. It reminded them of roofs all around Europe, especially where long lasting copper was used, not only for drainage but also for the roof surface itself. They thought maybe they could use copper to create an exterior finished building.”

After exploring several options, they settled on embossed copper panels. Photographs of the sky through the tree canopy were enlarged to fit the building’s exterior and then transferred as pixels to the copper. It took 7,200 copper panels with 1.5 million embossings to complete the look. The smooth areas are where the sky was in the photograph and the dimpled areas represent the tree branches. 

“The thought, very subtly, was to impress the reflection of park into surface of the building in a way that created a kind of texture on its surface,” Futernick said. Not only is this decorative but it allows light to enter the building. “In the tower area that area has offices, classrooms, study centers, and educational space, as well as an observatory area, they wanted to perforate the copper so light could come in, to have a kind of gauze-like look. That is very interesting because depending on the time of day and the light, it has the light from the outside.”

What is happening to the copper today is quite remarkable. As the copper reacts to the environment, it is forming a green patina which was exactly what the designers had in mind. “It is greening or becoming more like the park,” Futernick said. “That was the desired effect that evolved slowly over time in a kind of unpredictable way. If you look at the surface of the building there, you can see all different colors, various shades of brown and darker brown and green. It’s quite variegated like a leaf. It’s being colored by environment very randomly…I have to credit the trustees, the building committee, and our staff in being willing to trust a new concept for a building surface and taking a chance one it.”

In addition, a copper façade will last. “A museum is meant to be a home for cultural treasures. We want it to be place that lasts and the contents are well protected. Although copper does go through this kind of aging process, once it forms its patina on the outside, that process stops. It doesn't continue unless there’s a break in the surface and it sort of heals itself. Unlike steel, rust never sleeps. Copper can last for hundreds and hundreds of years pretty much intact.”


de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Franscisco, CA, (415) 750-3600

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