SHoP’s SITE Santa Fe Expansion is an Ode to the City’s Heritage

The New York firm has expanded the art institution, transforming its humdrum museum building into a work of art in the process

SHoP Site Santa Fe
Courtesy Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

It’s easy to see the allure of Santa Fe. The Southwestern city’s mountainous backdrop, painterly skies, and ever-shifting light has captured the imaginations of artists from Georgia O’Keefe to James Turrell.

These environmental qualities also inspired architect Chris Sharples of SHoP architects when expanding SITE Santa Fe, an influential art institution in the city’s Railyard district. Sharples and his team transformed the nondescript museum, housed in former beer warehouse, into an elegant civic asset that is both boldly contemporary and uniquely Santa Fe.

SITE Santa Fe already had a strong art and architectural legacy. Founded in 1995 to launch the first contemporary art biennial in the US, the museum has exhibited works by artists such as Doug Aitken, Tom Sachs, and Cai Guo-Qiang, and by architects including Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, and Greg Lynn. But its building, a dowdy CMU structure disguised in adobe, limited the types of loans the museum could acquire. What’s more, it lacked any sort of charismatic or memorable street presence. (A bit of blobby ornament courtesy of Lynn only helped mitigate the anonymity of the building envelope.) “It was what we called an introverted box,” says Sharples. “You could drive right by it and not really know there was a major art institution there.”

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SHoP Site Santa Fe
Interior: Lobby Courtesy Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

The project, surprisingly, marks SHoP’s first art museum, so the architects sought to employ lessons learned in their public art projects such as the forecourt of Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, or their 3D-printed installation at Design Miami last year. Says Sharples, “We believe that the whole experience of art doesn’t necessarily happen within the gallery, but it could happen out on the street. “

SHoP’s primary move was to literally move the museum right up to Paseo de Peralta. First, the New York firm expanded the building to the sidewalk by filling the crook in the building’s original L-shaped plan. To accentuate the building’s new, sweeping, parallelogram shape, they affixed a dramatic, open “prow” to the museum’s east corner to frame an entry plaza. “We see that courtyard as a critical space for art making and installation,” says Sharples. “We also really wanted to have moments where you framed the Santa Fe sky.”

The prow, supported by steel trusses, is covered in six layers of folded aluminum. In aggregate, these layers make up a facted, woven texture, evoking the triangular patterns found in the mountainous landscape and the motifs in the area’s traditional craft, while also referencing the brawny aesthetic of surrounding Railyard. “As you pass by you get this moiré effect. It’s always moving,” Sharples says.

This overhang also presents views inside the revamped facilities, where SHoP added a new café and a lobby exhibition space called SITE Lab. These additions account for some of the museum’s new 10,000 square feet of events, education, and other support spaces. The architects also revamped the existing galleries, but using a light touch and opting to leave the museum’s concrete floors alone. “It tells a really wonderful story about all the different shows that went on there–there was one point where an artist had to cut a hole in the floor. You see these marks left in the concrete,” says Sharples. “It’s like a Rosetta Stone.”

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