Architecture and light at Timken Museum of Art.

The Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park is designed to be filled with natural light.
The Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park is designed to be filled with natural light.

Would you like to enter a truly magical place? Step into the Timken Museum of Art. Walls disappear, and suddenly you are surrounded by fine art masterpieces, natural light, and the greenery and open space of beautiful Balboa Park.

I took a special tour of the building during the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s 2018 OPEN HOUSE event. I jotted a few notes and will now try to describe my experience.

According to our tour guide, David Kinney, a Balboa Park Conservancy Board Member, the building housing the Timken Museum of Art is disimilar in many respects to the extremely ornate Spanish Colonial buildings lining El Prado, which were designed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Timken has clean, symmetric, simple lines. It is the only building in Balboa Park specifically designed for people to walk around. The museum was built in 1965 and incorporates many facets of modern architecture. It was designed by San Diego architect John Mock, who intended it to be a “see-through” museum, where boundaries are blurred and gardens and sky are visible from many points inside.

When built, the Timken was the most expensive building ever constructed in San Diego. The building is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of mid-century Southern California Modernism and the International Style in the nation.

The abundant travertine, bronze and glass create a magical effect. Visitors to the museum feel surrounded by San Diego’s native sunshine. There are views of small gardens, the Plaza de Panama, the Lily Pond and families enjoying picnics on nearby grass.

By taking a few steps into the museum’s intimate galleries, visitors can view one of the most amazing small collections of fine art in the world. There are 60 major works, paintings by the likes of Copley, Johnson, Bierstadt, Veronese, Guercino, Clouet, Claude, David, Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck, Zurbarán and Murillo. The Timken owns the only Rembrandt to be found in Southern California. Every work is partially bathed in indirect natural light, from hidden skylights along the walls in each gallery. During our tour, as we gazed at the Rembrandt, a cloud passed over the sun, and the light in the gallery dimmed. It was an extraordinary experience that infused additional life into the moody masterpiece.

Come along with me as I show you a few photos. Read the captions for more info!

Fences enclosing a small garden and sections of the museum seem like airy lacework. The building's white travertine reflects San Diego's sunlight.
Fences enclosing a small garden and sections of the museum seem like airy lacework. The building’s white travertine reflects San Diego’s sunlight.
Turning west, we can see the California Tower across the Plaza de Panama.
Turning west, we can see the California Tower across the Plaza de Panama.
Our tour guide describes an architectural marvel.
Our tour guide describes an architectural marvel.
This small garden by one large museum window was created in 1983 by a Japanese master designer.
This small garden by one large museum window was created in 1983 by a Japanese master designer.
Inside the central lobby of the museum. The seats are Italian made. Another large window allows light in from Balboa Park's beautiful Lily Pond.
Inside the central lobby of the museum. The seats are Italian made. Another large window allows light in from Balboa Park’s beautiful Lily Pond.
Inside one of the galleries. The small fine art museum is free to the public and a popular destination in Balboa Park.
Inside one of the galleries. The small fine art museum is free to the public and a popular destination in Balboa Park.
Lights along the ceiling perimeter include skylights, admitting natural indirect sunlight.
Lights along the ceiling’s perimeter include hidden skylights, admitting natural indirect sunlight.
Saint Bartholomew, Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1657.
Saint Bartholomew, Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1657.
The Timken's collection was begun by the Putnam sisters, who had a passion for fine art. They also loved Russian Orthodox religious icons, a few of which are housed in one gallery.
The Timken’s collection was begun by the Putnam sisters, who had a passion for fine art. They also loved Russian Orthodox religious icons, a few of which are housed in one gallery.
Our tour ventured into the Timken's employee lounge, where we saw the original blueprints of this iconic building.
Our tour ventured into the Timken Museum’s employee lounge and meeting room, where we saw the original blueprints of this iconic building.
Also displayed was one early Timken architectural design concept, where the building would have been circular.
Also displayed was one early Timken Museum architectural design concept, where the building would have been circular.
A very cool free museum in San Diego, the Timken combines the magic of sunlight, a carefree day in Balboa Park and fine art.
A very cool free museum in San Diego, the Timken combines the magic of sunlight, a happy, carefree day in Balboa Park and fine art.

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Published by

Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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