M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

Named for San Francisco newspaperman M. H. de Young, this building is a completely reworked redesign from the original museum, which opened in 1895 as an outgrowth of the California International Exposition of 1894. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 which completely ravaged the original building's structure, the de Young board began working to fund a restructuring of the building, and the resulting winner of the competition for its redesign in the late 1990's was acclaimed Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron.

Herzog & de Meuron developed the idea of a variably perforated screen exterior which would mirror the green foliage and forestry of the surrounding Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's central park. The architects worked with Zahner whose engineers and software specialists developed a system which would allow unique perforation and patterned dimples, variably sized and placed throughout the exterior. This included near 8000 unique facade panels — the collective whole which formed patterns of light as seen through trees. This was the first iteration of the Zahner Interpretive Relational Algorithmic Process, or the ZIRA Process.

Craftsmanship in large buildings is supposed to be dead, killed by Modernist ideology and cost considerations. What this building says is that maybe craftsmanship has a high-tech future after all.

Time Magazine
Aerial view of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California
Aerial view of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California
Aerial view of the de Young Museum roof.
Aerial view of the de Young Museum roof.
Inverted Seam roof system and channel design for the de Young Museum roof
Inverted Seam roof system and channel design for the de Young Museum roof
Outdoor cafe under the de Young Museum canopy awning
Outdoor cafe under the de Young Museum canopy awning

At the time, this mosaic algorithmic process was emerging, but was undeveloped in the use of perforated and embossed metal. Zahner assembled a team of software developers and engineers to assist in this technological advancement.

The architects came up with a photo taken pointed up through the trees, and in several parts of the museum, light filters through the perforated system of holes, revealing shadows similar in shape and form to those of actual trees. ZIRA technology was developed to streamline this complex series of variable holes in the copper, allowing engineers to run chosen imagery through the algorithmic system, translating it to the thousands of copper plates. 

Source imagery and installed panel system for the ‘Children’s Entry’ at the de Young Museum.
Source imagery and installed panel system for the ‘Children’s Entry’ at the de Young Museum.

Above left, the surface of the 'Children's Entry' was created using imagery from a photograph provided by the architects (right). The vantage point looks up into a sky obscured by trees. Similarly, the section of the Museum featuring this surface was initially open, recreating the effect on metal. Since installation, the area has been covered for moisture control.

... A sensual copper skin that will evolve over time.

Sarah Amelar author, Architectural Record.

Architects originally called for a light golden-hued appearance for the Museum.  However, as the intentions evolved, a desire for the Museum to blend and emerge from its forested surroundings like an ancient indigenous structure.

Patina transition over time on the de Young Museum
Patina transition over time on the de Young Museum

Zahner helped to guide this decision for the client. Understanding how copper alloys weather over time, and understanding the integrity and durability of the material is key to its selection process. Zahner brought the clients into the fold of this knowledge, educating the design team on how over the next few decades, the copper facade and roof would transition from its bright golden red, to a dark brown, to a black, and finally, after a decade or more, it will slowly emerge into earthy greens.

In clean air environments — which San Francisco generally has great air quality — this process can take much longer. Copper oxidizes quickly in polluted areas. In cleaner environments, this process could take twenty to thirty years.

The following information is a snapshot of the building statistics:

  • Area of copper panels on the building: 129,900 square feet of copper panels.
  • Area of copper on the roof cladding: 55,500 square feet of copper panels and 6,500 linear feet of custom battens.
  • Area of copper on the tower: 33,218 square feet of copper panels.
  • Number of panels — Main building: 5,757; Roof: 3,513; Tower: 1,845.
  • Number of perforations — Building: 920,699; Tower: 803,229
  • There are approximately 1,500,000 bumps of the surface. This includes the four levels of bumps that go in and four levels that come out. These bumps, along with the flat plane, results in nine different levels of surface texture.
  • Pounds of copper utilized. . .1,121,992. This translates too. . .2,201 cubic feet or 1 sheet of copper that is 1 meter wide by 21.6 miles long.
  • The 70,000 pounds of the custom alloy, custom bronze extrusions utilized for the tower system were also designed and engineered by Zahner.