In a move that has angered critics and scholars, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) voted at its meeting on September 8 to remove the artwork, Facsimile, from the facade of the Moscone Center West. The move seals the fate of a project that began in 1996, when architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio defeated a pool of 62 applicants including Jenny Holzer, Anish Kapoor, and Nam June Paik for the site-specific project on the surface of the convention center in downtown San Francisco.
Conceived at a moment before the now-ubiquitous experience of cyberspace, Facsimile combined images of the surrounding city, live transmissions from inside the building, and hundreds of hours of footage filmed by the architects. Displayed on a screen that would travel from one end of the building to the other, the images fused elements of cinema, television, and video art into a unique work of architecture that, eighteen years after its initial conception, remains wittier and more ambitious than today’s typically banal media facades.
Every element of Facsimile involved custom fabrication and technical ingenuity. Despite occasional instances of bad luck—most notably an accident in 2003—Diller, Scofidio, and project leader Matthew Johnson donated hundreds of hours of their time to the city and remained optimistic that the project would become fully operational this year after the installation of a new video card. A bracing defence of free artistic and architectural expression, Facsimile precipitated a legal ruling that explicitly denied the use of its screen to advertisers.
Despite a request by the architects for a one-month delay of any action by the SFAC and an offer to donate $10,000 to finish the project and raise an endowment to cover the costs of its maintenance, Tom DeCaigny, Director of Cultural Affairs cited concerns about the project’s long-term sustainability. The Commissioners voted 9-1 in favor of removing it from Moscone West’s facade. Their decision comes at a moment when Diller Scofidio + Renfro is designing the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pacific Film/University Art Museum for UC Berkeley, and the Department of Art at Stanford University. It raises the troubling possibility that short-sightedness and provincialism may have trumped the commitment to supporting visionaries and cultural innovation on which San Francisco long has prided itself.