by Justin Duyao
March 15, 2023
For more than a hundred years, Balboa Park has been the cultural center of San Diego. Housing sixteen museums, seventeen gardens, and dozens more cultural attractions, the sprawling 1,200-acre park is one of the oldest in the United States. At its center sits The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA).
Since SDMA first opened its doors in 1926, the iconic, life-sized sculptures of Spanish painters Velázquez, Murillo and Zurbarán engraved directly into its facade have served as the park’s cultural vanguards. One of the first cultural institutions in the city constructed with San Diego’s iconic “Spanish Mission flavor,” SDMA has been a significant architectural landmark in the area for nearly a century. This month, the museum announced the selection of Foster + Partners, a renowned international architectural firm, as the Design Architect for its future renovation project. The project will begin its detailed planning phase in the coming months and is expected to break ground in 2026.
“Our motivation for this renovation is the growing need that The Museum has for more space,” said Roxana Velásquez, Maruja Baldwin Executive Director and CEO at The San Diego Museum of Art. “Before the pandemic, The Museum had a record number of visitors. We want to continue to expand access to art collections. To do that, we need more space.”
The Museum’s renovation plan aims to increase art display and further enrich the public’s interaction with exhibitions and education programs, while respecting the architectural style and historical significance of Balboa Park. The renovation project will encompass and focus on the Museum’s west-wing infrastructure and facilities, with the goal of creating a new Education Center, a pavilion that will activate visitors to celebrate art and connect with the outdoors, as well as a new rooftop space that will provide panoramic views of Balboa Park.
“Currently, the education center is located below ground, where students cannot be inspired by the San Diego environment,” Velásquez said. “Now is the time to make a transformational investment in The Museum’s facilities to ensure that we can continue to serve a diverse and growing community, while we also care for our collection. This project grants us the opportunity to build modern technological and environmental infrastructure, marking the beginning of a new era to inspire, educate, and cultivate curiosity for the next 100 years and more.”
This renovation is a timely one for the museum. First conceived in 1922, SDMA represented San Diego’s first fine arts gallery and collection. Business and civic leader Appleton S. Bridges who offered to fund the construction brought on one of the city’s leading architects at the time, William Templeton Johnson, who also designed the La Jolla Public Library (now the La Jolla Athenaeum), the Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Trust & Savings building—the list goes on. Alongside Richard Requa, another San Diego-based architect who was determined to adapt and refine the broader Spanish Colonial Revival style to develop a distinctive Southern California Style, Johnson’s work established adobe roof tiles, smooth, stucco walls, and fanciful arches as the aesthetic standard in the city.
“The erection of the Fine Arts Gallery at the head of the Plaza de Panama gives the stamp of finality to the gradually evolving idea that Balboa Park is to be the center of the cultural and artistic life of the community,” Johnson said.
Looking back, Johnson’s hunch that Balboa Park and SDMA alike would operate as significant cultural forces in San Diego was spot on. According to Velásquez, part of the reason SDMA’s board of trustees selected Foster + Partners to spearhead the museum’s renovation project was because of their history honoring historical sites’ significance in their communities.
“Norman Foster is a collector who respects building history, beauty, and harmony,” Velásquez said. “Most importantly, he has experience working with historical sites, such as the British Museum and, in Spain, The Prado and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. He has a unique way of utilizing the past and history and incorporating the use of modernity and elegance.”
Foster added that he has always admired San Diego’s rich cultural diversity and deep sense of community.
“We are delighted to be working with The San Diego Museum of Art to strengthen its roots in the area, reinvigorating a much-loved landmark with the ultimate aim of making art more accessible to the community,” Foster said.
The firm will work closely with SDMA to create a space that enhances the visitor experience and fits within the historical heritage of Balboa Park and the cultural trajectory of San Diego. Local firm LPA Design Studio will also collaborate with Foster + Partners as the Architect of Record, with a focus on project management and daily oversight of the renovation project.
“We are honored to have these two firms partnering with us to amplify and showcase our flourishing museum,” said Taffin Ann Ray, President of the Board of Trustees at SDMA. “This next chapter will further emphasize the Museum’s mission of inspiring, educating, and cultivating curiosity for all.”