By the end of 2018, the Mingei International Museum, a Non-Profit Organization (NPO), decided to close its doors for celebrating its centennial through a renovation after collecting 37 million dollars as a donation from various parties, including Joan and Irwin Jacobs, the Legler Benbough Foundation, and Lucille and Ron Neeley. They sought 15 million dollars more for completing the renovation which spans an area of 46000 sq ft along with adding 6500 sq ft of new spaces. 

The Panama Exposition Center

In 1915, the Panama Exposition center occurred in Balboa Park which houses the Mingei Museum now. It was to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and San Diego was the first port-of-call for the ships using the route. It would make the San Diegans in a strategic spot. Using the Panama Canal, the city could develop. 

The exposition was to invite business leaders, the affluent, and political influencers of the United States for economic prosperity. The center had many buildings constructed in Mission Revival style, consisting of clean volumes, bell towers, and arches rising from the building.

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The Buildings contained in Bilbao Park viewed from google maps. The one marked by 7 is the House of Charms, the Mingei International Museum_©public(dot)csusm(dot)edu

The Reimagination of Mingei Museum

The Mingei International Museum is inside the house of charms, a building within the Balboa Park complex. LUCE et Studio, a homegrown architecture firm based in San Diego, was invited to design the structure for better use. Its famous coffee bar, souvenir shop, and ‘ Nikigator ’, a sculpture in the Mingei, famously designed by the Late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle were temporarily shifted to Liberty Station.  

Jennifer Luce, the chief architect of LUCE et Studio, analyzed the movement of the public. Mingei means the ” art of the people “, and the renovation concept followed it. The building was adjacent to the famous Plaza de Panama and Alcazar gardens, providing both visual and physical access. 

LUCE designed the ground floor extending to the roadways so that the existing pedestrian networks directly connected the building. The entry would be free. The ground floor would be open to the public through the clock providing a view of the park and the plaza. It would act like a transition connecting the open spaces while containing necessary spaces like the sunken auditorium. 

The ground floor has reduced structural members to enhance the effect of vastness. The architects believe this could help attract a younger crowd who might visit the Mingei Museum upstairs. The exhibits and the art library would be moved to the first floor in the process.

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Render by LUCE et studio imagining the plaza of Mingei International Museum_©Mingei International Museum and LUCE et Studio(dot)com

Visitor amenities were to be improved, like a new Bistro, a sit-down restaurant, and a redesigned museum shop, Shop Mingei. New programs like the education center would educate children and adults about the history and culture of the artifacts that the Mingei International Museum displays to its visitors.

Renovations at the Mingei International Museum 

The Mingei had multiple unused spaces that were closed for both the visitor and unutilized by the staff. LUCE decided to design around those spaces and put the areas to use. Among it was the bell tower, an unoccupied space since its construction in 1915, was undisturbed in elevation, but enclosed the new stairwell will exhibit the existing artwork, which would be hung from the ceiling or placed on walls, thus performing as circulation space and display area. 

The building also has two terraces, both unused for more than four decades, and will open after renovation. It will increase footfall and provide views of the sea, park, and the nearby plazas. The renovation would be contemporary style in the interiors while keeping the famous elevation outside.

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A glimpse of the existing artifacts in Mingei, image taken before renovation _©Balboapark(dot)org

New programs designed at the Mingei International Museum

LUCE et studio proposed developing the old underused loading dock into an extension for the old building to the Mingei International Museum Board led by Rod Sidner. The extension would impact the revival-style architecture and the micro-urban fabric of the park. 

A theatre for 150 people was designed on the ground floor with glass walls, enabling the outsiders to view the program for free. It opened doors to more program possibilities with a roof added over the theatre

The architect made the rooftop as an extension to the plaza, used for landscaping, and as a temporary Open-Air Theatre for screening movies on the rustic museum wall with a projector. 

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Architects render of the new theatre proposal_©Mingei International Museum and LUCE et Studio

Artworks at the Mingei

Jennifer Luce quoted that, ‘The philosophy of the (museum) collection should be expressed in the architecture so that all our senses are affected’. Many famous artists have been commissioned to add more items to the existing displays comprising 26000 artifacts sourced from 140 countries. 

Since Mingei focuses on traditional handicrafts, paintings, and sculptures, LUCE et decided to add permanent contemporary artworks to the program around the museum. They are placed in circulation spaces and other areas and unaffecting the flagship displays while showcasing the new additions.

Claudy Jongstra is designing a mural wall made of wool extracted from the herd of sheep she reared. Dutch designer petra Blaise is making the curtain that veils the sunken auditorium and the open spaces. Dale Chihuly will work with a glass sculpture prospectively located in the grand staircase built near the bell tower. 

Grand Reopening of the Mingei International Museum

The museum was slated to open in 2020, but construction was put to a stop because of the pandemic and the idea of adding a new theatre that needed additional funds. A testing opening was conducted during the Open House San Diego event, though the actual inauguration will be in May 2021. 



Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.

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