The mid-century modern Timken Museum of Art today stands on a prime location in Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama, the site of an important, but temporary, edifice for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. That structure, the Home Economy Building designed by architect Carleton Winslow, was demolished in 1963. The Timken is arguably the second most important mid-century building in San Diego, after Louis Kahn’s iconic Salk Institute. The Timken is all the more significant for being designed by a local architect.
The groundwork for the museum began in 1951. With the help of longtime friend and lawyer Walter Ames, the sisters Amy and Anne Putnam established the nonprofit Putnam Foundation, under which any art acquired became part of the Putnam Foundation Collection. After Ames secured financial support from the Timken family and its foundation, the firm of Frank L. Hope and Associates, the largest of its kind in the region, was hired to design and build a museum to display the collection in San Diego in perpetuity.
While the Hope firm established a working team for the project, John Mock, Hope’s architect in charge of contemporary design, was responsible for the conception of the building. Mock attended several meetings with Walter Ames and Frank Hope Sr. and Jr. to discuss the main design feature – the ability to embrace Balboa Park from within the building. In contrast to other Balboa Park structures that focused internally on their own exhibits, the light and airy “see-through museum” took shape.
The symmetry, balance and palette of materials (travertine, bronze and glass) set the stage for an experience unlike any other structure in Balboa Park. Standing next to a 19th century cast of Giambologna’s Mercury in the foyer (consciously echoing a similar cast in the west building of Washington’s National Gallery of Art), visitors can enjoy the lily pond to the east and the Plaza de Panama to the west as the sun rises and sets. Garden courts dissect the structure’s middle and blur lines between interior and exterior spaces and engage San Diego’s moderate climate and abundant sunshine.
The firm hired internationally-acclaimed lighting designer Richard Kelly to design the museum’s interior and exterior lighting scheme. Kelly, who was favored by architects such as Kahn, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, provided a unique skylight program for filtered sunlight to bathe the masterpieces in a way that was both considerate to the health of the art and consistent during the sun’s daily journey across the sky. During mid-summer there is often no need for artificial lights in the galleries.
Hope’s design leader Howard Shaw provided the designs for the grill work and bronze fascia scheme on the exterior. He also embellished the entry in floral-themed bronze plates and continued the abstraction to the bronze railings, gates and grill-work that punctuates the light, airy feeling of the Timken’s glazed openings.
According to experts, the Timken represents some of the best evidence of 1960s modernity by some of the best talent San Diego had to offer. It is a major example of a post-World War II trend to build contemporary museum buildings to display the art of the past, projects that include Kahn’s museums at Yale University (1953 and 1976) and the Kimbell in Fort Worth (1972), William Pereira’s 1966 Ahmanson Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Philip Johnson’s museums in Utica, New York (1960), Fort Worth (1961) and Lincoln, Neb. (1963).
Today’s rose-colored wall upholstery is not original, installed in the early 1990s to enhance the colors of the paintings. When the Timken opened the walls were a color complimenting the travertine floors, with the intention that the neutral tonality of the interior would have disappeared and one’s eye only attracted to the rich colors of the paintings and the gold frames.
Two other points should be remembered when considering the Timken building in the context of Balboa Park. The first is that it continues a trend of building structures of contemporary design in the park. The dominant architectural style in 1915 was revival: on the East Coast Colonial Revival architecture reflected the nation’s 18th century origins; in the Midwest one sees Romanesque Revival; in San Diego it is natural to find Spanish Revival. Twenty years later there was a trend toward modernist designs and the buildings created for the 1935 Exposition, such as the Ford Building (now the San Diego Air and Space Museum) are art deco in form. So the creation of a mid-century modern, International Style, museum in 1965, especially in Southern California, should come as a logical progression.
The second point is that the Timken was the most expensive building erected in San Diego up to that time. The benefactors were proud that not only was no expense spared, but that on completion it was given to the city for the benefit, pleasure and inspiration of the citizens of San Diego and visitors to the city. The building and its contents are available free to everyone.