The UC Davis Manetti Shrem Museum Points to a New Direction in U.S. Museum Design

Museum Opens Nov. 13

Quick Summary

  • Museum, which emphasizes arts education, is designed by associated architects SO – IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Construction is nearing completion on the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum set amid the expansive views of California’s Central Valley and surrounding farmlands. At the grand opening on Nov. 13, visitors will experience a new form of museum architecture, one achieved by integrating outdoors and indoors, blurring the usual hierarchical relationship between exhibition and teaching spaces, that furthers the museum’s educational mission.

The museum is designed by associated architects SO – IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, along with contractor Whiting-Turner, firms chosen in a design competition in 2013.

Visible along Interstate 80, the museum’s design signature, the Grand Canopy, channels the intense light of the region into constantly changing shadows and silhouettes that animate one of the museum’s primary gathering spaces, the entrance plaza. The sweeping, permeable roof tops a low-slung, single-story 30,000-square-foot interior.

The canopy arcs as high as 34 feet on the freeway side, and dips as low as 12 feet on its front, which is across the street from the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts — a primary entrance to the campus that forms part of an arts corridor.

Within the fluid interior, a glass lobby leads to a central courtyard, which opens to the sky, and to three distinct pavilions offering differing spatial qualities that accommodate exhibitions, art making and operations, adding up to 19,000 square feet combined for public use and gatherings. Beyond serving as a gateway to the museum lobby, this outdoor space will provide opportunities for interactive learning, open-air exhibitions and performances; two exterior projection walls allow for display of digital works and film.

“Our architects have given us a toolbox for testing new ways of using a museum devoted to contemporary art,” says Rachel Teagle, founding director, Manetti Shrem Museum. “We have galleries that can turn on a dime; outdoor walls that transform into screens; public spaces with and free Wi-Fi access; and rooms in which to hold university courses on all kinds of subjects, not just art.”

The museum will explore contemporary art and ideas in part from the perspective of its collection, a unique repository of works created by a generation of influential artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Arneson who taught at UC Davis beginning in the early '60s.

The three inaugural exhibitions will include an installation by the Mexico City-based artist Pia Camil; a large-scale video installation commission by the San Francisco-based artist Chris Sollars; and an examination of the UC Davis legacy.

Architecture of the vernacular

The expressive Grand Canopy cover comprises 910 triangular, honed aluminum infill beams, fit into an intricate pattern that evokes the patchwork texture and topology of the Central Valley. Less than 20 percent are the same length, with almost no repetition in the patterning. Just 40 slender, white steel columns support these 15,200 linear feet of beams, as well as 4,765 linear feet of steel.

As many columns as possible are pulled inward to open up the plaza and create cantilevered stretches along the roof’s perimeter. The building’s entry façade is glazed with tempered glass in curved and straight segments, flanked by walls of precast concrete with a nonrepeating vertical rib pattern.

Sustainability that accommodates art viewing and preservation

Inside the exhibitions pavilion, the floors are polished concrete and the ceilings custom aluminum mesh fitted with state-of-the-art, occupant-controlled LED lighting, which supplements the natural light delivered by visible connections to the outside and illuminates a variety of media. The museum incorporates sustainable design with such features as recycled materials, water-saving features and advanced lighting controls. The museum is on course to be LEED-certified.

The landscape

Plant selections reinforce the sense of the landscape as a series of outdoor rooms and the building as an extension of the landscape. Drawing from species native to the region and appropriate for the local climate, plantings reinforce the building elements: the silver foliage of olive trees harmonizing with the light tones of the Grand Canopy and planted mounds echoing the canopy curves. The landscape in the events plaza mimics forest understory.

The design-build team

SO – IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson are associated architects with contractor Whiting-Turner. The museum was built for $30 million.

SO – IL is well known for the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, Korea, and the Frieze Art Fair in New York City (2012). The firm is the recipient of The Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious Young Architects Program and the Architectural League of New York’s “Emerging Voices” award.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, internationally known for its work with Apple, Pixar and Adobe, is a national architecture firm that has received more than 650 regional, national and international awards for design since its founding 51 years ago

Whiting-Turner, founded in 1909, is one of the nation’s leading design-build and construction management firms. The Burton and Deedee McMurtry Building for art and art history at Stanford University is among its recently completed projects.

Media Resources

Anne Edgar, 646-336-7230,

Karen Nikos-Rose, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, 530-219-5472,

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