The gripes about the architecture of the District of Columbia and San Francisco are pretty much the same: Too many Neo-Classical and Beaux Arts sacred cows. All the mid-century Modernist buildings are boring, glassy boxes. And what passes for contemporary design seldom goes far enough.
I’ve had some of these thoughts about my adopted city of Washington, D.C., and as I scanned clips about San Francisco’s architectural scene, host city to the AIA’s 2009 Convention, I girded myself for the same impressions, even though it seemed absurd that there could be much at all in common between the Left Coast capital of social experimentation and progressivism and the stodgily proficient Federal Washington. And after spending a few days walking the streets and talking with architects and critics, each snap judgment of architectural conservatism contained a nugget of truth. But what was most impressive was how these places have such different architectural identities.
In Washington, the postcard Neo-Classical buildings people travel from across the nation and around the world to see (the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the National Gallery, the memorials) are events. They’re relatively self-contained, and from their perches on the National Mall or elsewhere, often don’t attempt to engage or work with the surrounding urban fabric. (A plan for the monumental core of the city by the National Capital Planning Commission is working to rectify this. This has also become a rallying cry for the American Society of Landscape Architects in their response to the National Parks Service’s plan for the Mall) It’s a kind of ivory tower monumentalism. It would be nearly impossible to happen upon any of these buildings by accident, and they often announce themselves with radical changes in neighborhood scale. Even the most well integrated of Federal event architecture, like the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, can’t resist looking down on all the glass storefronts and mini Times Square-like video screens below it. It’s a fantastic urban amenity, but its change in neighborhood scale makes it rather imposing for the fine-grained pedestrian retail and restaurants below. The odd humble and unassuming Art Deco apartment building or golden-domed bank in Washington makes me smile, but I don’t get that pleasure quite enough.
But in San Francisco, I found myself grinning at well-integrated, down-to-earth examples of traditional architecture everywhere I went. This included a wide mix of building types and styles: Romanesque, Art Deco, Neo-Classical. A surprise seemed to be around every corner. I can’t say how San Francisco’s preservation community has behaved any differently than Washington’s but I can say that I like it.
So, to totally contradict my point from above, here are some photos I took of San Francisco’s newest, and often most iconic, contemporary architecture.
Just completed last year, Daniel Libeskind’s, AIA, Contemporary Jewish Museum does a great job of humbly integrating new, contemporary forms into a Beaux-Arts building. From some angles, its blue steel-plated canting prisms disappear behind the faced of the former power plant (built in 1907) they’re attached to, and that makes their revelation as you round the corner an especially enigmatic surprise that respects the scale and context of the neighborhood.
There’s probably not a more DC-building in San Francisco than it’s City Hall--gold leafing, colonnade, dome, rotunda and all. Like most domed capital buildings, this government seat (designed by Arthur Brown and completed in 1915 after the 1906 earthquake) sets itself apart from the city with a broad ceremonial plaza.
Thom Mayne’s, FAIA, San Francisco Federal Building (2007) is certainly an example of the city taking formal risks with bleeding-edge architecture. I had expected its perforated metal screen to engage the city a bit more, but I loved its vertical glass louvers and the sense of witty High Modernist commentary they offered.
Mario Botta, Hon. FAIA, told me that his use of brick in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995) showed how it’s become an ageless building material.
The California Academy of Sciences offers incredible feats of engineering and sustainability—a curving roller coaster walkway that winds through a spherical rainforest atrium topped by a rich and biologically diverse green roof—but perhaps its biggest strength is relying on the surrounding landscape of Golden Gate Park. Very often, science centers, nature centers, and aquariums like the Academy are compartmentalized and cave-like, as visitors are shunted from exhibit to exhibit and told by signs and plaques they’re looking at natural reproductions from various corners of the world. Not so at the Academy by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, whose LEED-Platinum-rated museum allows a dialogue to take place between the nature on display in the exhibits and the nature outside, through floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the ground floor. The exhibits themselves are so well integrated with each other that pure single-function circulation spaces are very rare if not extinct. From the top level of the rainforest sphere, visitors can look though a glass bottomed tropical pond and see fish swimming, and lower down still, patrons milling about in the lower level aquarium experience a powerful connection among the ecosystems, which the Academy wishes to teach people to respect and protect. The Academy also references San Francisco’s singular urban topography. A series of raised hills cover the green roof, the two largest of which cover the rainforest sphere and the opposite sphere that houses a planetarium. The views from the roof deck across the Park to the De Young Museum are great, as are the hilltop views from just about any San Francisco street. Hiking up them may be a hassle, but it allows visitors to see, encompass, and understand the city without a helicopter ride or even an expensive drink at a bar on the top floor of a downtown skyscraper.
The peculiar, E.T.-like head of the observation tower at the de Young Museum, completed in 2005, is a bit of an alien presence in Golden Gate Park, but not an unwelcome one. It’s a vaguely rectilinear building with incisions for lush and green pocket parks between galleries and a thick cantilevering café canopy with drama to spare. Its observation tower widens as it rises, twisting a few degrees each level. The exterior is clad in slowly oxidizing copper, enigmatic and mysterious rather than friendly and outgoing. Despite all the metal and sharp angles, I was amazed at how organic Herzog and de Meuron’s building felt. On the wet, rainy morning I visited, the texturized and perforated copper’s rich blend of browns and golds resembled nothing so much as the rain-soaked wood of the trees around me. This worldly outcast of a museum is a good example of pursing contextual aesthetic goals by using radically oppositional materials.