San Diego Museum of Art hires world-renowned architect to revamp its west wing

San Diego Museum of Art exterior.
The west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art, the single-story gray building to the left of the main two-story museum in Balboa Park, will be revamped by Foster + Partners.
(Courtesy of Javier Velez)

Foster + Partners, which has built iconic structures at museums around the world, will design the project breaking ground in 2026


The San Diego Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it has hired the internationally renowned architectural firm Foster + Partners to design a new building to replace its existing west wing on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.

Helmed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Norman Foster, the London-based company has designed many projects for prominent museums around the world, including creating the Great Court at the British Museum in London, a new west wing for the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Art of the Americas wing for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is also now building two projects for museums in Spain: a “floating pavilion” for the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and an expansion wing for the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

The new wing at San Diego Museum of Art would break ground in 2026 — which will mark the museum’s 100th anniversary. The new wing would replace the 1966-era, single-story, 35,000-square-foot structure that stands to the left as you face the museum facade. It now houses a gallery and multiuse auditorium. Because plans are evolving, the future of the indoor-outdoor structure that now houses the Panama 66 restaurant and the adjacent sculpture garden is still to be determined.

SDMA Executive Director and CEO Roxana Velásquez said in an interview that the new building will allow the museum to build an education center for visiting school groups, a public pavilion open to all, new restaurants and a rooftop space offering views of the park. It may also have a new basement level to provide much-needed storage space for the museum’s growing art collection.

San Diego Museum of Art Executive Director and CEO Roxana Velásquez.
(Courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Art)

In the past, changes proposed for the 1915-era buildings and bridge in Balboa Park have drawn intense scrutiny and, in some case, strong criticism from historical preservation groups like the Save Our Heritage Organisation and the Balboa Park Heritage Association. Because Balboa Park is owned by the city of San Diego, all major renovations must be approved by the San Diego City Council. Back in 2011, a proposal to build a bypass ramp from Cabrillo Bridge to a paid parking garage was approved by the council but the public uproar led the project’s main underwriter, San Diego philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, to pull out.

To keep the public informed, the museum will organize community engagement events during the design process, including public workshops and open house events to gather feedback and suggestions from the community. Velásquez said the new wing won’t have a tower or any other “disruptive” element that would distract from the park’s “context.” Instead, she believes Foster will create a building that honors the past and embraces the future.

“Why Foster? He is a monument of talent and creativity,” Velásquez said. “He’s a collector who respects beauty and harmony, but also the public. Most important, he’s used to working in historical sites and he respects historical buildings, as we have seen at the British Museum and the Prado at Bilbao. This is an incredible way of looking into the past, analyzing the context and then adding seamless modernity and elegance.”

In a prepared statement, Foster said he’s excited to get to work on the project.

“I have always admired San Diego’s rich cultural diversity and deep sense of community,” Foster said. “We are delighted to be working with The San Diego Museum of Art to strengthen its roots in the area, reinvigorating a much-loved landmark with the ultimate aim of making art more accessible to the community.”

Now in her 12th year at SDMA, Velásquez said plans for the project have been in the planning stages for many years.

“Since the day I arrived, I thought we needed to do something. This building has not been touched since 1966 when it was built,” she said. “This is an institution that has really transformed itself from within. We’ve been changing the exhibitions, the presence of the museum in San Diego and the world and we’ve amended the collection by more than 4,000 works of art in the years I’ve been here. We’ve also increased the audiences. ... If we compare to 2019, we’ve increased attendance almost 25 percent.”

Velásquez said the city of San Diego has also changed in the past decade and its citizens have embraced several notable new cultural construction projects, including the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla and the newly revamped Mingei International Museum, just across the plaza in Balboa Park.

Jonathan Glus, executive director for the city of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, praised Foster’s work with historic structures.

“Mr. Foster has a tremendous legacy still in the making of sensitive yet bold additions to historic public buildings,” Glus said, in a statement. “This expansion of the San Diego Museum of Art is another important step towards modernizing the overall experience of the cultural district in Balboa Park. Congratulations and thanks to the San Diego Museum of Art for this gift of design excellence to our city’s growing collection of extraordinary cultural institutions.”

Julie Coker, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, also praised the renovation plans.

“The San Diego Museum of Art has always been a major draw to Balboa Park,” Coker said. “Balboa Park drives tourism and attracts 4.6 million visitors a year. A sustainable renovation of the museum will add to its appeal and give people a reason to return again and again.”

Velásquez said the museum’s board of directors and an ad hoc committee started its architect search process with 60 firms and finally worked its way down to Foster + Partners, which will coordinate the project with local architect of record LPA Design Studios.

Velásquez said she’s confident the museum has chosen the right company for the job.

“(Foster) has a capacity to create spaces that integrate perfectly the outdoors and the indoors. He has this incredible way of doing it without it necessarily being a Frank Gehry building,” she said, referring to the designer of some of the world’s most eye-popping structures like Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. “We know where we are. It will be an iconic place.”