The M.H de Young Museum constructed in the Golden gate park of San Francisco, California contains an in-depth background and is recognized as an architectural icon for being the largest enveloped copper structure designed by Herzog de Meuron in collaboration with principal architects Fong + Chan Architects.

M.H de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron - Sheet1
M.H De Young Museum Exterior_©

Why and what was the M.H De Young built for?

Museums are usually built to present treasured art collections, displaying them to enrich and educate the public; the De Young Museum also falls under that category. Before becoming Herzog De Meuron’s iconic structure it underwent various stages that sparked the concept for the newly designed museum. 

Originally built back in 1894 in the Golden gate park of San Francisco as a fine-arts building, it aimed to provide the city with a landmark art museum that would showcase collections of ancient American, African, Oceanic Art as well as international textile arts and costumes from the 17th century till the 20th. Like most structures, in 1906 it was destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake and was closed for repairs.

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Aerial view of the old M.H De Young Memorial Museum, ca 1925_©

M.H De Young, an American journalist and businessman, made it his quest to create a space that would better serve its growing audience, where his efforts were appreciated and the Museum’s name was changed to the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. 

The building, however, did not know its future fate. 83 years later the most damaging seismic earthquake “The Loma Prieta” took place, leaving the supporting steel structure completely vulnerable, rendering it unsafe resulting in its demolition. (History of the de Young Museum, n.d.)

Herzog De Meurons’ design philosophy 

In 1999, a competition was open for the museum’s new design and Herzog de Meuron took into consideration its seismic history, its philosophy of diverse cultural art forms on a global scale with a common ground and created a body of architecture that radiated diversity whilst respecting the surrounding urban park which in return led them to win and build it in 2005.

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Aerial view of exterior De Young Museum, ca 1925_©

Although the new museum of 27220m² is larger in area than the ones that preceded it, it reduced the carbon footprint by 37% allowing for a vast open space with a public sculpture garden, a children’s garden, a terrace under a cantilevered roof, and a few elements like the sphinx from the old De Young. (AIArchitect, July 21, 2006 – de Young Museum Architects Receive Award for Accessible Design, 2022).

M.H de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron - Sheet4
Cantilevered Outdoor Area_©

The concept is derived from having three parallel elements that aren’t detached and placed side by side but are all interconnected under one roof to strengthen the visitors’ experience of coexistence and diversity of culture, with spaces that pierce through the buildings creating inner courtyards and allowing the park to fill the spaces in between allowing for permeability, delivering a museum that has exciting and dynamic spaces and is in complete dialogue with the surrounding Golden Gate Park on all sides.

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Horizontal building in-between spaces_©

Planning, Space & Design:

The museum building consists of two buildings one of which is large with three horizontal levels that house all the main spaces and different types of exhibitions spaces that embody all different backgrounds. The main level consists of the entrance lobby, the main court, a restaurant, a museum store, and a children’s gallery all of which are open to visitors as an extension of being an inviting space to the public.

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Main Level interior space_©Malagamba
M.H de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron - Sheet7
Observation Tower_©

The other building is the striking Hamon Tower, a vertical twisting structure of 9 floors that holds multifunctional spaces and an observation deck with the last floor offering visitors panoramic views of the facing park and the city. The tower starts off as a rectangular base and rotates on each level according to the level underneath, to align with the strict rectangular city grid.

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Panoramic view from Observation Tower_©

Herzog de Meuron designed both buildings to withstand future earthquakes. The horizontal building used a base isolation system to reduce the level of floor acceleration, resulting in flexibility for the displaying art all the while reducing vibration feels. And, the tower building, although having a rectangular fixed-base system, was also a complex design system due to the rotation of each floor.

(Gonchar, n.d.)

The Skin of the Building

The most intriguing architectural feature however of the museum is its copper skin, a material that oxidizes and will eventually develop a patina over time blending the building with its natural surroundings. Herzog de Meuron worked with Zahner, the design-build supplier of the skin, for a year to come up with a system for copper panels to reflect the impression of the surrounding trees. 

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Perforated Copper Façade of de Young Museum Designed by Herzog & de Meuron_©

To capture its effect, they used 2 unique layers with patterns of circular perforation and pebble extrusions of varied sizes throughout the exterior of the building, producing shadows similar in shape and form to trees, mirroring its surroundings, giving the impression of light filtering through, all the while limiting the amount of natural light allowed into the galleries. (The Skin of the DeYoung, 2006)

Source imagery and installed panel system at the de Young Museum_©

In the event, the De Young Museum was to be dismantled, the use of copper sheets will be recycled seeing as how originally 80% of the copper used was recycled scrap metals, collected and recycled at the fabrication facility. (The Semantic Metal Surface | Zahner — Innovation and Collaboration to Achieve the Incredible, n.d.)

The intricacy of the entire museum can’t help but resonate with its surrounding environment and one thing is for certain, it is an integral part of the cultural fabric of the city and will stand the test of time.

  1. 2022. AIArchitect, July 21, 2006 – de Young Museum Architects Receive Award for Accessible Design. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  2. Divisare. 2009. HERZOG & DE MEURON, Johannes Marburg, Duccio Malagamba · De Young Museum. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  3. Gonchar, J., n.d. CE Center – One Project, but Many Seismic Solutions. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  4. n.d. de Young Museum | Zahner — Innovation and Collaboration to Achieve the Incredible. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  5. 2005. De Young Museum – Herzog & de Meuron | The Plan. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  6. 2006. The Skin of the DeYoung. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  7. n.d. The Semantic Metal Surface | Zahner — Innovation and Collaboration to Achieve the Incredible. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  8. n.d. 10th Anniversary of the New de Young Museum and its Sheet Metal Magic | Zahner — Innovation and Collaboration to Achieve the Incredible. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].
  9. de Young. n.d. History of the de Young Museum. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2022].”

An architectural masters graduate with a passion for design and writing. She holds a strong attitude to overcome obstacles combined with an optimistic character used to bring value to whatever project she is working on. She is organized, motivated, self-confident and success oriented.