Designing for Art: A Tour of Two Unique Spaces

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
5 min readJul 24, 2020
Inside the Manetti Shrem Museum — © Iwan Baan

At home, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we long for the places we can’t be. Galleries and museums — places for peaceful reflection, engagement in social commentary, personal expression, and playful exploration — are closed. These sanctuaries dedicated to artists and their work fill our hearts and minds. We miss them and need them in our lives. For a brief escape, we reflected on two very different yet spectacular interpretations of places to view art. They are the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art located at the University of Davis campus in California and the private Waipolu Gallery in Oahu, Hawaii.

Both the museum and the gallery serve different audiences, fill different needs, and are built at different scales. They look nothing alike, yet, at the root, they both celebrate place, allow for flexibility, and use light and patterns in fascinating ways. While emanating their artistic expression, these buildings embrace their role as curators of art. Let’s take a tour!

Manetti Shrem Museum (Left), Waipolu Gallery (Right) — © Nic Lehoux

Rooted in Context and Nature

When developing the design concept for the Manetti Shrem Museum, we, in partnership with SO-IL sought inspiration from the agrarian landscape of California’s central valley, it’s diverse and inter-woven patterns, forms, texture, and colors. This is reflected in the building’s façade and canopy roof structure, as well as the building’s seamless integration into the framework of the campus. Visitors also experience this quilt-like pattern when moving throughout the rooms in the floorplan.

Manetti Shrem Museum in Agrarian Landscape — © Iwan Baan

The Waipolu Gallery, on the other hand, doesn’t replicate the native vernacular of Hawaii or the landscape. Instead, the gallery embraces every opportunity to showcase a jaw-dropping view–framed as if art–of the Pacific Ocean and the iconic volcanic peak of Diamond Head. The artwork is seen with Hawaii as an accompanying composition. It’s part of the experience and intrinsically linked. Visitors come to the museum to view art within the context of Hawaii. The experience is rooted in place.

Waipolu Gallery Framed Views and Observation Deck — © Nic Lehoux

The Art of Flexibility

While the University of Davis had specific programmatic needs for their teaching museum, they also wanted the ability to change the layout of rooms for events, specific exhibits, and future programming. The result is interconnected rooms, whose temporary walls allow for a myriad of configurations. Spaces are interspersed with lounges and varying ceiling heights, allowing for large-scale works, and giving visitors a sense of freedom and rawness. This variety offers visitors the freedom to experience their own path through the museum shaking off conventional norms. Manetti Shrem Museum Founding Director, Rachel Teagle, said:

“The canopy, the modulation of light. The comfortable, open feel. There are a lot of ways that this building shrugs off the stiff formality of a traditional art museum experience. We’re very sophisticated but we really welcome the student body.”

Manetti Shrem Museum Lounges and Flexible Classrooms — © Nic Lehoux

The Waipolu Gallery is just as flexible, but flexibility is derived from a different motivator. Instead of a diversity of purpose, this adaptability drives practicality. The gallery owner has an extensive collection and wanted a way to safely house a wide selection of art in a relatively small space. The ground-floor level is devoted to an innovative system for art storage that uses pivoting walls for display and storage. It exemplifies the harmony of both beauty and function.

Waipolu Gallery Pivoting Walls— © Nic Lehoux

Glass, Light, and Pattern

Part of the experience of visiting the Manetti Shrem Museum is observing patterns caused by sunlight, shadow, glass, and structural elements throughout the building. As described in our book Gathering, the building “is an iconic artwork in its own right, its varied sizes and orientations creating a mesmerizing, sculptural play of dappled light and shadow. Visitors discover these extraordinary effects immediately upon approach, progressing along varied sinuous pathways to the curved glass entry.” During the day, the exterior shade canopy casts patterns, strengthening one’s awareness of natural sunlight.

Manetti Shrem Museum Shade Canopy — © Iwan Baan

The Waipolu Gallery plays with contrasting materials and texture to lead visitors through an experience. Smooth glass, copper cladding, saw cut lava and limestone are in conversation with each other. Design elements like the glass bridge and observation deck provide transparent focal points forcing you to interact with your surroundings within the site. Geometric changes between volumes provide directional cues. Patterns in glass cast shadows creating an ever-evolving display of light.

Waipolu Gallery Mixed Materials and Glass Bridge — © Nic Lehoux

The Experience

What unifies both the museum and the gallery, are that these buildings are meant to inspire. They are pavilions for viewing art and each are works of art themselves. As architects, we use building materials to create focus, allow for function, and to capture the influence of nature. Form follows function, but form doesn’t need to be limited by function. As we isolate inside, socially distance, and adapt to our current circumstances, viewing and creating art brings us solace. We only hope that we can return soon to sanctuaries such as these that ground us in place and connect us to art.

Further Reading:
Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
Waipolu Gallery and Studio
Making Being Here Enough — Art and Architecture during a pandemic



Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.