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San Diego’s Mingei International Museum undergoes a sweeping renovation

Luce History

San Diego’s Mingei International Museum undergoes a sweeping renovation

The Mingei International Museum, a nonprofit public institution that collects, conserves and exhibits folk art, craft, and design objects in San Diego’s acclaimed Balboa Park, is one of the city’s most beloved cultural attractions. Founded in 1978, Mingei is housed in the House of Charm, a Mission Revival-style building originally built as a temporary exhibition space for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. During the building’s centennial, a $37 million campaign began to renovate the structure while reimagining its relationship to the local community and its park surroundings.

Black-and-white photo of Mission Revival-style complexes, including the Mingei
The Mingei International Museum is set within the House of Charm (left), originally built as a temporary exhibition space for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. (Courtesy Luce et Studio)

The monumental task was given to local architecture firm LUCE et studio, which imagined a sweeping transformation of everything on the site save for its iconic facade. Given the building’s placement between two park grounds—the Alcazar Garden on the west, and the Plaza de Panama to the east—LUCE et studio decided to treat the ground floor as a columnless, free-of-charge public exhibition hall that doubles as a breezeway between the two public spaces. A former loading dock on the site will become the site of a courtyard space above a small, partially sunken auditorium that can open and close to the outdoors, while a staircase and skylight are being added to the building’s previously underutilized bell tower. The top floor will be dedicated to gallery spaces, a board room designed to house the museum’s original George Nakashima-designed table at its center, and wrap-around terraces along the Plaza de Panama-facing facades that archival photos suggest once existed atop the building.

Aerial diagram of a museum floor plan between two green spaces
For the time in its history, the ground floor will act as a breezeway between the site’s two park spaces. (Courtesy Luce et Studio)

The firm also saw the renovation as an opportunity to install permanent examples of contemporary handicraft. The studio commissioned Claudy Jongstra, for example, to create a large-scale mural made with wool from the Dutch textile artist’s herd of sheep for the ground floor, as well as a curtain from Dutch designer Petra Blaisse in the auditorium space, and a glass sculpture by American artist Dale Chihuly to hang in the bell tower.

The Mingei is currently scheduled to (re)open to the public in May 2021, though visitors to last weekend’s Open House San Diego were given a rare opportunity to take a hard hat tour through the long-awaited museum.