The building was built on the site of a Spanish colonial-style museum complex destroyed by the 1989 earthquake. The elegant forms and original use of materials, characteristic of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, provoked active opposition from the conservative authorities of the city, but the persistence of the museum administration nevertheless made it possible to implement the project.
The structure is completely clad with copper (a total of 7602 panels of various shapes were used) and is the largest building covered with this metal in the world.
The main element of the project is a curved tower that rises above the treetops of Golden Gate Park, where the museum is located. It offers views of the city, and it also connects the building with San Francisco: the size of the tower allowed it to become a noticeable element of the urban landscape.
The main volume, rectangular in plan, is cut by small courtyards planted with ferns. Glass walls have made these gardens part of the interior of the museum.
Particular attention was paid to the architects to emphasize the continuous flow of space: the entrance to the museum is connected to a large lobby by an open courtyard, from there a wide staircase leads to the halls of the second floor. The curved floor plans of the exhibition halls also contribute to this. The interiors of the museum are decorated with eucalyptus wood.
The cost of the entire project was $ 190 million, which were collected by private individuals, despite the fact that both the collection (art from Africa, Oceania, Mesoamerica) and the museum itself belong to the city.