Photo by Jorge Bachman

After suffering severe damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco’s de Young museum has reopened its doors to an admiring public. What’s amazing to many is how wonderfully Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron blended de Young’s new home with its surroundings in Golden Gate Park.

On the outside, a perforated copper facade creates dappled patterns of light that mimic how sunlight filters through the trees. Inside, the museum is a marvel of great space usage. Impressively, the designers doubled the previous de Young’s total square footage, choosing a new three-level design, thereby returning two acres of open space back to Golden Gate Park.

The new de Young balances form with function, being both beautiful and robust, and the ceilings play a key role. They are seismically fortified – perfect for the art they protect – and incredibly appealing to the eye.


Since 1895, the de Young museum has been an integral part of the cultural fabric of San Francisco and a cherished destination for millions. The museum is home to one of the most diverse and important art collections in the western United States. It includes American paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and crafts, art from Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Americas, and textiles from around the globe.

The museum’s owners, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), wanted their new building to reflect their collections in a special way. FAMSF worked with Herzog & de Meuron as primary designer and Fong & Chan Architects, San Francisco, as principal architect.

Constructed of warm, natural materials, including copper, stone, wood and glass, the new de Young blends into and complements its surroundings. Ribbons of windows erase the boundary between the museum interior and the lush natural environment outside, and four public entrances welcome visitors from all directions.

Inside, the lobbies feature Italian porphyry stone floors, ArcusStone-coated information desks and BASWAphon acoustical ceilings. Stretched fabric is present underneath skylights and light boxes in many of the galleries. Second-floor galleries feature sustainably farmed, eucalyptus wood floors from Australia, a species of eucalyptus known as “Sydney Blue.” The same species is featured in the ceilings of those galleries, and in the floors of the special exhibition area and the observation deck of the Tower.

But why eucalyptus?

Nuno Lopes, project manager at Fong & Chan, said the species of wood was selected because of its properties. “That particular species of eucalyptus is very hard. It is nearly equivalent to mahogany as far as its puncture resistance, scuffing resistance and so forth,” said Lopes, speaking mainly of the flooring application. “The other reason we went with that wood is from a color standpoint. It’s what we were looking for, a brownish red and constant throughout.”

Lopes said that the hardness factor was a requirement of both the museum and Fong & Chan. “The aesthetic was certainly a priority for Herzog and de Meuron,” he added.

By using the same eucalyptus species in several ceiling installations, were the architects simply trying to mimic the floors in those spaces? “Well, that was the thing,” said Lopes. “What drove the species was the floor. When the decision was made to have wood ceilings, the obvious choice was to use the same wood.”

Were other ceiling options considered for these galleries? “It was an evolving process,” Lopes admitted. “At one point in time, the entire museum floor was going to be stone, but we looked for something softer for the upper floors. The idea of wood originated from that. Once we made the decision to go with wood on the second floor, I can’t think of any material other than wood that we considered for the ceilings from that point forward.”

The eucalyptus wood ceilings slope throughout the upstairs galleries. Sometimes they follow the pattern of the exterior roofline, and sometimes they slope for perspective. “As you approach a gallery, the ceilings come down and it feels like the museum is getting deeper,” said Lopes. “Coming from the opposite direction, the ceilings sort of open up, and it feels like dimensions across the gallery get shorter. It is pure optical playfulness and is partly the reason why the ceilings and the floors are both wood.”

Photo by Jorge Bachman


Of course, installing these prized playful ceilings was no easy feat. According to Michael Van Bemmel, vice president, Ireland Interior Systems Inc., San Francisco, installation of the 42,000 square feet of “Sydney Blue” eucalyptus wood ceilings required tremendous collaboration. “They were fully designed by myself and the architects. A manufacturer assisted me in getting the layout and making sure the suspension system worked,” said Van Bemmel, who takes great pride in handling projects that other firms find challenging.

Van Bemmel served as chief estimator and project manager for the wood-and-metal ceilings installations at de Young. He said that the eucalyptus wood ceilings were similar to tongue-and-groove wood flooring. “It’s a non-accessible ceiling,” said Van Bemmel. “The ‘tongue’ is a clip that fits into the female side of the wood, and it acts as a holding piece for the next slat to slide into. It’s a progressive system.”

The wood was attached to black-colored grid suspension, the DONN Brand DX Ceiling Suspension System from USG Interiors. “The system is fully seismic, and the wood was hung by wire off the grid,” said Van Bemmel. He noted that the eucalyptus wood ceiling system weighs less than four pounds per square foot and the suspension system has tolerances far in excess of such a load.

“The whole job was unusual, but interesting. It took a full year to come up with the strategy, the design and the layout,” said Van Bemmel, who has been in ceiling installation for 23 years. “Pictures really don’t do it justice.”

Still, earthquakes are a reality in California from time to time, but Van Bemmel is confident the ceilings that are now in place are there to stay. “I am very confident,” said Van Bemmel. “The ceilings were engineered. We used so much bracing and so many connection pieces. I mean, that building will come down before the ceilings will come down.”


Many of the museum’s offices are located away from galleries in the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Tower. Here, architects chose engineered metal ceiling panels with 1/2-inch-diameter perforations. The 2-foot-by-4-foot CELEBRATION Metal Specialty Ceiling Panels from USG Interiors are clean-lined and seem to float overhead. The panels come with a built-in, hinge-down feature, allowing easy access to the plenum. The suspension system also helped integrate special, 5-inch-by-48-inch light fixtures selected for the Tower offices.

It turns out that the ceiling systems in the Tower evoke images of the museum’s exterior. Just as the outside perforated copper facade mimics nature’s playfulness with light, the perforated metal ceiling panels used in the Tower reflect a similar theme. Was this by design?

“I don’t think that was ever the attempt, at least as far as I understand it,” said Lopes. “I remember early discussions of those ceilings. We were always talking about creating a soft ‘membrane’ on the ceiling plane – something transparent, so you could perceive space above the ceiling. Instead of having a hard ‘lid,’ you’d have something soft like netting. That was always the concept. The fact that the [Tower] ceilings and the [exterior] facade have similarities, I would suggest, is purely coincidental.”

Lopes added: “When I say netting, I’m speaking conceptually. I don’t think it was ever going to be physical netting. The idea was netting. There might have been some discussions about creating a veil, or the idea of a veil, and that would logically bring potential materials, such as fabrics to the plate. However, those materials would have been quickly rejected as not being durable enough for the museum. We pushed for something rigid and permanent.”


In other areas of de Young, the architects used innovative ceilings systems to solve important problems. For example, BASWAphon acoustical systems were used in the museum Cafe and in the Piazzoni Murals Room.

“It’s an acoustical material treated and made to look very similar to a plaster application. The substrate is semi-rigid insulation, and then you have a three-coat system – a brown, a scratch and final coat,” said Lopes. “We used a lot of this material in places where the finishes are all hard finishes.”

The Cafe and the Murals Room are both high-occupancy sites and feature floors and walls made typically of stone, gypsum board and glass. “The acoustics would be a nightmare if we had hard ceilings,” said Lopes.

Another specialty ceiling application was used in the Koret Auditorium. Here again, the need for good acoustics drove the concept and the final choice in materials. Since the floors, walls and ceilings were specified dark burgundy, the wall-and-ceiling system selected was fabric, designed to achieve a proper color-match and sound attenuation.

“We needed to put insulation material on the walls so that we wouldn’t get echoes,” said Lopes. “The concern came in that once you place panels of insulation on the walls and ceilings and stretch fabric over them two things would happen: The joints between the insulation materials would telegraph through, because the material was not terribly thick, and it was very apparent that anyone leaning into the material would leave a big quoin-size dent.”

The solution came by doing different mockups. “We chose fiberglass netting with 1/4-inch-size squares,” said Lopes. “We reinforced the joints with a fiberglass tape, and then we covered the entire insulation material with this netting twice and put the fabric over the top. That worked well. If you put an elbow into the insulation panel, the fiberglass netting pushes back on that force. It also remembers its static position and returns to that position.” Thus, all auditorium walls and ceilings received this construction technique.

Photo by Brett Drury


Before retiring in 2006, Harry S. Parker III, then director of FAMSF, called the new de Young a “remarkably innovative and thoughtful building.” Indeed, Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan, working closely with Ireland Interior Systems, its supplier Pinnacle Distribution, San Jose, Calif., and USG, chose seismically stable ceilings that allowed for design flexibility, ease of installation and cost-effectiveness.

Last year, Pinnacle Distribution, which supplied the eucalyptus wood ceilings, ceiling suspension and other materials, entered the de Young project in an industry awards competition. USG and Ireland Interior Systems were listed along with Pinnacle, which received a Construction Excellence Award and an award for Overall Construction Excellence from the Ceilings and Interior Systems Construction Association. Both awards recognized the innovative use of materials on this job.

The de Young museum is 293,000 square feet in size and features more than 116,000 square feet of gallery, display and educational space. It cost $202 million to construct and re-opened in October 2005. Its remaking has been fantastic for the city of San Francisco and the architects, designers and contractors involved. Millions of art lovers who visit de Young, however, are the ultimate beneficiaries.