Afters three years of competition, construction, and even a little controversy, the new sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art made its public debut on May 10th, Mother’s Day. Designed by Jensen Architects with CMG Landscape Architecture, the new rooftop addition is almost Miesian in its elegant simplicity: glass and steel boxes surrounding an artfully composed open-air courtyard. In fact, the design specifically recalls Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. There too, a glass facade opens out onto a walled sculpture garden; a respite from the sparseness and propriety of the formal Modern Art Gallery. But here, instead of natural growth poking out above the surrounding walls as it does in Berlin, it’s the urban landscape of San Francisco high-rise towers. As has been noted by many a critic and visitor, the emotional effect of the garden is that of an urban oasis.

Indeed, from the new sculpture garden, the sounds of traffic merge with the whirrs and hums of nearby HVAC units into an almost ocean-like white noise. The occasional police siren rings through the air like a proxy gull call. Grab a latte from the Bay Area’s own Blue Bottle Coffee, provided by the kiosk prominently installed at the head of the museum’s addition (the high-design, local equivalent of a Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble?), and sit at one of the well-designed benches or cafe tables and forget your concerns and obligations to the surrounding city. What better way to spend an afternoon or a lunch hour than admiring work by noted sculptors like Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelley?

The sculpture garden is accessed from SFMOMA’s fifth floor gallery by a glass-enclosed bridge–offering its own great views–that leads to the pavilion-like structure framing the Northwest side of the courtyard, and separating an intimate terrace from the rest of “gallery without a ceiling,” as Jensen has described the new rooftop garden. The original fifth floor gallery has also been expanded with the addition of The Overlook Gallery. The Overlook Gallery juts out slightly above and into the courtyard, earning its name with a massive floor-to-ceiling glass wall that provides a seamless visual connection to the outdoor sculpture space.

In that outdoor space, Ginko Trees and Sargo Palms rise from white concrete planters with integrated bench seating. And once again recalling a Mies structure, god is in the details at the SFMOMA sculpture garden: CMG Landscape Architecture worked with a biologist to embed lichen in the 13-foot-high gray Chinese lava stone wall. Over time, this porous surface will blossom with various shades of greens and yellows – a sort of infinite canvas; a natural complement to the element-tested metal sculptures.

Like any good gallery, the new 14,400 sculpture garden is a versatile space with a lot of exciting potential for growth and innovative use. It’s deceptively simple design will allow the curators–and visitors!– freedom in how the space is used and how work is displayed. As the seasons and exhibitions change, so too shall the SFMOMA rooftop garden.

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