A small site on the outskirts of this college town near Sacramento, backed up against some train tracks and Interstate 80, is not where you might expect to find a building to boost your faith in the future of American architecture. But UC Davis’ Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, which opened to the public last month, is accomplished enough, in its precise and unhurried way, to do just that.
Designed by New York’s Solid Objectives-Idenburg Liu (SO-IL for short), a firm led by the husband-and-wife team of Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, the $30-million, single-story museum sits a few blocks south of the main Davis campus, next door to the significantly larger Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.
Covering just 30,000 square feet of interior space, a third of that dedicated to galleries, the Manetti Shrem is wrapped in walls of corrugated precast concrete. Its signature element is a white canopy of aluminum beams that emerges from the roof and slopes toward the sidewalk to cover a wide courtyard at the front of the building.
The courtyard will hold performances and installations; digital artworks and films can be shown on sections of the museum’s exterior. On clear days, sunlight passes through the canopy and projects its own dramatic and shifting effects onto the ground and the sides of the building.
Before you even walk inside the museum, in other words, you get a sense that the architects are interested in shaping spaces for public interaction as much as for art. Because this is a teaching museum that includes classrooms and art studios as well as galleries, that elastic and ultimately generous definition of museum architecture is fitting.
SO-IL designed the Manetti Shrem with Karl Backus of the San Francisco office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (best known for its work on the Apple stores). But it’s fair to say that its architectural sensibility flows primarily from Idenburg, 42, and Liu, 37, whose work tends to be porous and substantial at the same time, with cubic forms often cloaked or veiled by snug, semi-transparent skins.