A $105 million renovation and expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla is wrapping up with the museum scheduled to open to the public in April.
The project began in 2014 with design work and was so complicated that it took three years to build, two architectural firms, and multiple consultants.
“It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever been a part of,” said John Bunje, project executive at Level 10 Construction, the general contractor on the project. “It really is an entirely new place.”
The museum has been closed since 2017 for the construction.
The expansion doubled the size of the museum in the heart of the La Jolla Village at 700 Prospect St. and quadrupled the museum’s gallery space.
The museum went from 58,239 square feet to 97,371 square feet and the amount of gallery space went from 9,300 square feet to 38,950 square feet.
Including outdoor courtyards, the museum has a total 109,939 square feet of space.
“It’s the most beautiful site that anyone could ask for in a museum, considering the incredible views that exist all around,” said Sara Lopergolo, a partner of Selldorf Architects based in New York – the design architect on the project.
Bracketed by Prospect Street on the east and Coast Boulevard on the west, the site cascades downhill toward the Pacific Ocean. The renovated and expanded museum plays up the sloping site with terraces, outdoor courtyards and glass windows which sort of frame the view, Lopergolo said.
The museum actually is a collection of buildings constructed in stages over the years.
It started out as the home of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps completed in 1916 by Irving Gill.
Since opening as a museum in 1941, it was expanded in 1950, 1960 and in the late 1970s. It was renovated in 1996.
“This is really our specialty, making sense of the existing,” Lopergolo said. “It is in essence ground up, but our specialty is in finding resolution and bringing things together and not having everything disjointed.”
Rewarding and Frustrating
An important part of the renovation was reorienting the main entrance and lobby, which had been at the side of the museum, to the front on Prospect Street.
“It’s all glass. It welcomes people in,” Lopergolo said. “It welcomes the passersby to see what’s going on.”
The former Sherwood Auditorium has been converted into a 7,000 square-foot gallery with ceilings 20 feet tall in one of the more complicated parts of the project because it involved supporting the existing structure will with steel beans mounted on concrete while the land beneath it was dug out to create more room.
“We spent probably the better part of the first year going down, digging down, supporting the temporary structure,” Bunje said.
To make room for the expanded museum, an 80-foot tree had to be moved 45 feet to the east, using a 350-ton crane to pick it up and swing it into its new home, Bunje said.
Branches of a large tree that was kept in place had to be carefully protected from other cranes used in the building’s construction.
“Thankfully, we didn’t have to dig it up and move it. It’s got to be 50 feet across at its widest,” Bunje said. “It’s something that was incredibly rewarding but at the same time, was incredibly frustrating.”
The museum will reopen with a special exhibition of work done by the late Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s. Saint Phalle lived in La Jolla for a time.
The museum has a permanent collection of 5,000 pieces, but only about 200 will be displayed at any one time, said Chris Cloud, the museum’s director of communications and marketing.
Most of the rest are kept in an off-site storage location.
“The reason why we expanded was to showcase our collection, which has never been seen on a long-term basis, and to provide more space for the community to gather,” Cloud said.
The goal was to create “a world class art museum that rivals New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London and we have that now,” Cloud said. “We’re just super excited by the fact that we’re able to show more artwork. Now, people will be able to spend hours on our campus,” Cloud said.
Joining Selldorf Architects and Level 10 in the project was LPA Inc. Based in Irvine with San Diego offices in Logan Heights, LPA was the executive architect responsible for making sure that the actual construction followed the designs and that all the permits were in place.
The construction and renovation work finished pretty much on schedule in October, Bunje said, although the COVID-19 pandemic did cause issues in getting materials delivered, including getting the Italian travertine tile used in part of it.
“A lot of that had to do with lockdowns in Italy and finally being able to get things manufactured and shipped over,” Bunje said.
Since October, workers have been getting the museum ready for the opening.
“It’s going to be a very special, very special place,” Lopergolo said. “We expect people to come from all over, not just local, to see this world-class museum.”
Level 10 Construction
Partner/President: Dennis Giles
Notable: Level 10’s San Diego County projects include the 14-story St. Teresa of Calcutta’s apartment tower for the homeless and veterans in East Village, a new Torrey Pines fire station, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.
Headquarters: New York
Founder and Principal: Annabelle Selldorf
Business: Architecture firm
Notable: Clients include cultural institutions and universities such as the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, The Frick Collection, The Clark Art Institute, Neue Galerie New York, and Brown University. The recently completed Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility on the Brooklyn waterfront is the largest facility of its kind in the United States. In addition, the firm has created numerous galleries for David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Gladstone Gallery among others, and designed exhibitions for Frieze Masters and the Venice Art Biennale.