SFMOMA rooftop garden blends art and nature

When is a garden art?  When is art a garden?

That question is deftly answered in the rooftop sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where flora mixes with world-class sculpture to create a unique garden-art space.

The design, by project architect Mark Jensen, in partnership with CMG Landscape Architecture, was the winner chosen by SFMOMA in an open competition.

The team created a spare, crisp, modern garden that contrasts man-made elements — rock, metal, glass and bronze — with bright green plants. The confluence of the two has a kinetic, edgy, exciting feel that makes the sculpture, and the foliage, stand out in relief.

It’s a garden in the sky. A hundred feet above the ground, sited on the roof of SFMOMA’s garage, the garden is connected to the main building by an enclosed glass walkway with stunning cityscape views and is bounded by a glass pavilion and 13-foot-high stone walls.

It’s art in garden form, with rooftops as a backdrop, the outside walls as a perimeter, and the Mario Botta-designed museum as the base.

There’s a door that opens onto the garden from the fifth floor of the museum.

The design team placed pure white planters housing a parade of tall ginkgo trees alongside lava, machiche wood and polished concrete. Added to these are sculptures by great artists like Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Ranjani Shettar and Henry Moore.

The landscape architects rooted plants, including natural grasses, ferns and perennials, around the perimeter, raised the height of the planters and placed wide benches nearby, so that at eye level, natural green is visible in this manmade gardenscape.

Right now, in winter, the combination of the lowered angle of the sun and the clearer air makes this garden seem especially exciting. As Jensen says, “it’s a gallery without a ceiling,” for both foliage and art.

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