Behind the Oakland Museum’s $20 Million Plan to Transform Its Roof Into a Public Art Oasis
Hood Design Studio will focus on native plants for the garden's new design.
When the Oakland Museum of California was completed in 1969, its terraced roof garden was the first of its kind for a US museum. Half a century later, the institution has tapped landscape architect Walter Hood, founder of Oakland-based social art and design practice Hood Design Studio, for a massive $20 million renovation project to the outdoor portion of its seven-acre campus.
The original Brutalist building was the first major project by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche, working with landscape architect Dan Kiley (the same duo was also responsible for the landmarked Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City). But maintenance of the museum’s plantings was left to city workers and local gardeners, who struggled to find trees and shrubs that would grow in the museum’s untested rooftop beds.
“Today, we understand sustainable aspects of landscape in a way that we didn’t 50 years ago,” said Hood at a luncheon in New York unveiling the museum’s plans. Figuring out how to replant the gardens while staying true to the spirit of Kiley’s original design, he said, “was almost a research project.”
Hood’s other museum projects include landscaping work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Broad in Los Angeles, and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. He is also working on the forthcoming International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.
Groundbreaking on the new project is scheduled for September, timed to the 50th anniversary of the museum’s original opening. Construction is set begin in earnest in January, and to be completed by fall 2020. (The museum will remain open throughout, with sections of the garden closing on a rotating basis.)
Opening to the City
Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf is already looking forward to personally taking a sledgehammer to the northern garden wall, as part of an effort to open up the space not only to the public, but also to adjacent Lake Merritt.
“We have this gorgeous lake in the middle of our downtown,” said Schaaf, who has made improving access to the lakefront a priority since taking office in 2015, recently unveiling a protected bike lane. “Every resident deserves access to art and culture.” She noted that the new gardens at the museum will be free and open to the public seven days a week, during daylight hours. (General admission to the galleries is $16.)
As Hood delved into the museum’s history, he actually discovered an early plan from Kiley that featured a row of trees instead of a wall. His new plan will create a prominent public entrance, clearly visible from the lake, at the place where the wall now stands.
“In the late ’60s, Oakland was in turmoil,” Hood said, noting that Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was in jail not far from the museum’s future home, which led to protests in the streets. “We think the idea of walling the museum in may have been a product of the times.” The new entrance will serve as a public porch, hopefully attracting members of the public who might not have known the museum was even there.
Over the decades, the garden has become overgrown, the museum largely hidden behind a monotonous grove of dull, bushy evergreen trees. In photos taken of fans flooding the streets of downtown Oakland after the Golden State Warriors’s 2015 NBA championship, it’s nearly impossible to pick out the museum perched on the hill just behind the crowds.
Museum director Lori Fogarty had overseen a massive renovation of the building in 2010. She saw the roof garden revamp as a key next step in raising the museum’s profile and bringing in a larger audience. (The project represents $15 million of an $85 million capital campaign for the museum, with additional funding to be determined by the city bringing the budget for campus renovations up to $20 million.)
A New Landscape
Another priority? Rethinking the varieties of vegetation in the garden. “To have a museum of Californian art history and natural sciences with a garden that has no native plants wasn’t really serving our interpretive mission,” said Fogarty. “We’re one of the very museums in the country that has art, history, and natural science.”
“A lot of the plants were not native, and they were not sustainable,” added Hood. “Since the museum’s mission is about California, why shouldn’t the landscape be about California?”
His new design calls for each of the terrace’s four levels to represent one of the different ecological regions in the state, with plants found in the low desert, the coastal forests, the chaparral and woodlands, and the Mediterranean climate. The plantings will be put in gradually, and Hood expects it will take between 10 and 15 years for new trees to reach maturity.
Hood hopes the different landscapes will make the terraces easier to navigate, helping visitors orient themselves on each level. Other aspects of the new design include seating throughout the terraces and a permanent stage for performances and film screenings in the main courtyard.
The work will also give curators the chance to reconsider display of the 20-odd artworks currently on view throughout the garden, which include large-scale pieces by Mark di Suvero, George Rickey, and Tony Labat. “We have a wonderful collection of outdoor sculpture, but honestly, it’s become a little bit haphazard over the years—much like the landscape,” said Fogarty.
Some pieces on loan to the museum will be returned to the artists, and others will be relocated with input from Hood and his team. This fall, the garden will welcome a massive, 40-foot-tall Burning Man temple, commissioned by the museum from artist David Best for the traveling exhibition “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” on view October 12, 2019–February 16, 2020. (Due to fire code regulations, it won’t be burned down.)
A Place to Heal
The multi-disciplinary museum, which has nearly 2 million objects in its collection, prides itself on tackling the issues facing the city and the state as a whole. In 2016, for instance, ahead of the passage of the bill legalizing recreational marijuana, the museum presented “Altered States: Marijuana in California,” exploring the history of the plant in the state and inviting museum visitors to form their own opinions on the issue.
“The museum is not some dusty, static tomb that houses culture,” said Schaaf. “It is a dynamic interactive place in one of the proudest, most diverse cities in America, where people come together to feel a sense of belonging and to understand our history and engage in an incredibly important dialogue about the present.”
Last year, the city unveiled its first cultural plan in 30 years. “It talks about racial inequity and how culture is a place to heal,” said Scaaf, who recognizes the difficulty in creating and maintaining affordable spaces for arts and culture in a rapidly gentrifying city.
“The hard part of being in a city like Oakland,” said Fogarty, “is that there’s always a sense that we have to settle for second best, that we can’t aspire to the kinds of dreams that New York or San Francisco or Chicago can dream about—but this city needs to dream big.”
See more renderings of new museum garden below.
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