Like most architects who traveled to San Francisco to attend the 2009 AIA National Convention, I could not leave without taking some time away from the Moscone Center to explore the city. This wasn’t my first trip to San Francisco, but there was much that I had not previously seen, both old and new.
San Francisco is rightly famous for its varied neighborhoods, its spectacular prospects, picturesque Victorian homes, and wonderful parks. Despite its hilly topography, this is a city that is best experienced on foot. In many respects, San Francisco’s scale and the fabric of its urban environment are more noteworthy than the individual examples of architecture; the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, I had my list of buildings to see. Fueled by determination and a supply of granola bars, I visited all by walking from one to the next.(1) Following are my thoughts on just a few of these buildings:
Wright Writ Small
The V.C. Morris Gift Store (now the Xanadu Gallery), was designed in 1948 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Construction of the Morris Gift Store allowed Wright the opportunity to realize at a much smaller scale the now legendary spiral ramp theme of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Although it was built before the more famous Guggenheim, the design for the museum predates that of the store.
The store is situated mid-block along Maiden Lane, a narrow alley near Union Square, the center of San Francisco’s tony downtown shopping district. The Xanadu Gallery’s website describes the architecture thusly:
“The street entrance is an updated Romanesque arch, which according to Wright beckons the passerby in rather than vulgarly displaying its merchandise on the sidewalk . . . The brickwork itself, a rare enough sight in San Francisco architecture, is beautifully laid, and draws attention quietly rather than competing with the surrounding street. A delicate line of translucent panels with a raised geometric motif that is classic Wright lights the outside wall.
“The arch gives way to a glass tunnel atrium, then on to the spiraling interior. The entire space seems to rotate beneath the luminous bubbles of the cast white plastic ceiling. The latter evokes the organic geometry of the Johnson Wax Building interior, and creates the effect of opalescent, filtered sunlight. The inside walls of sand colored, poured concrete flow around this dome of light, marked by occasional lit portholes. Setting off all this luminous pallor is Wright's curving built-in cabinetry. Everywhere the attention to detail is perfect, from the grand modular display tables to the whimsical brass and Lucite pedestals. The sum is a perfect synthesis of theatrical and organic splendor.”
I appreciate the work of Frank Lloyd Wright much more now than when I was younger. This might seem surprising, given that it was Wright’s design for Fallingwater that set me on the path to becoming an architect. But it was along that path that I was led to believe that Wright’s architecture had lost its relevance and that it was primarily the cult of personality surrounding him that sustained his fame. I’ve since realized that Wright will always remain relevant to contemporary architecture. While idiosyncratic, and often impractical, too many of his designs betray a real genius. The V.C. Morris Gift Store is one of those designs. It is visually rewarding at every scale, rich in detail and quirky by turn. Movement along the spiraling ramp constantly shifts the perspective of the viewer. It is a most convincing essay on the interrelatedness of time, space, and architecture.
San Francisco Federal Building
Can Someone Translate Morphosis For Me?
The second building on my hit parade was the San Francisco Federal Building, designed by Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis. Of course, Morphosis also designed the Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse here in Eugene. Both buildings are significant because they are large projects for the federal government, designed to fit within tight budgets while meeting ambitious targets for sustainability.(2) They are also representative of Mayne’s penchant for an architecture that is confrontational and cognitively dislocating rather than one that is conventional or comforting.
There is plenty to admire about the design of the San Francisco Federal Building, most notably how much architecture was wrested from every dollar spent. The 18-story structure was lauded by the New York Times as a "literal symbol of government transparency in an era when the fear of terrorist attacks is prompting government agencies and corporations to turn their offices into armored compounds." The south elevation is dominated by a draping, perforated metal scrim that provides shade for the floor-to-ceiling windows. This screen morphs at its base to form the roof of the first floor daycare center and the coffee shop that prominently occupies the southeast corner of the site. While not completely discernible during my visit (the light was flat and gray on a drizzly Sunday morning), I’ve been told that the scrim is alternately delicate and transparent or hard and opaque, depending upon the time of day. There is a moiré effect, the layering adding greatly to the visual richness of the façade.
However, not unlike our courthouse, the architecture of the Federal Building is also inscrutable and cryptic. Why must the column next to the main entrance lean at such an unsettling angle? To what end is the enveloping scrim folded and cut as it is? Why do other disquieting features read like so many architectural non sequiturs? Why did Morphosis introduce these seemingly arbitrary gestures? Because I visited on a Sunday, I wasn’t able to enter and study the building from within, although I suspect that getting inside would not have helped me much. I left the Federal Building with the impression that I am not among the initiated, that I do not fully understand Thom Mayne’s intentions simply because he communicates with a sophisticated alien language I cannot yet and may never be privileged to comprehend.
Visiting architects admire the generous canopy that keeps the grass dry.
The impenetrability of Morphosis’ design intentions is undoubtedly deliberate. To a great extent, that is the appeal of the firm’s work. You are left with your uncertain readings of the designs and pondering the architects’ aesthetic objectives.
It’s revealing that Thom Mayne relishes his role as an iconoclast. “Architecture with any authenticity represents resistance,” he has said. “Resistance is a good thing.” Then again, resistance is futile if it is meaningless. I suspect this is not the case with the San Francisco Federal Building. If he were to translate for us the underlying message of his firm’s architecture, we might learn that it begins and ends with Mayne himself. My guess is that his buildings are ultimately a self-conscious reflection of his maverick persona: sharp-edged, steely, intimidating, and enigmatic.
California Academy of Sciences
Big Boxes for Science and Culture
I was prepared to dislike the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum before I saw it in person. I’d seen photographs of the building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Mueron. I was also familiar with the outcry that accompanied the unveiling of the architects’ design. Regarded by many at the time as being without scale and insensitive to its remarkable site within Golden Gate Park, the museum would have much to prove upon its opening in 2005.
On the other hand, I had read nothing but rave reviews about the new building by Renzo Piano (another Pritzker laureate) for the California Academy of Sciences, also located in Golden Gate Park. Opened just last year, it is deservedly famous for its outstanding commitment to sustainable design principles. The museum’s living roof has achieved icon-like status, conceptually an undulating, green section of the park lifted into the air. Below, exhibits are clearly organized within a classically symmetrical plan. The Academy is immensely popular, as I experienced during my visit.
The Academy's "living roof"
The museums face one another and engage in a dialogue across the large Music Concourse. Whereas the de Young appears mute and turns inward, the Academy is transparent and engaging. Both replace predecessors that were irreparably damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay area. Both are essentially big boxes of similar size and expense. Both are designed by internationally renowned architects. It’s impossible to avoid a comparison of the buildings.
The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum
Given my preconceptions, I was surprised upon visiting the two museums that I preferred the architecture of the de Young Museum to that of the Academy. It’s perhaps easiest to explain my preference by distinguishing the design intent of each building. Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic for the online magazine Slate, wrote that they represent two different visions of the role of the contemporary architect: problem-solving vs. art-making. Rybczynski asserts that Piano seems to be more directly concerned with the former, while Herzog & de Meuron's self-absorbed architecture is a result of the latter.
The Academy: a carnival fun house of the natural sciences
Architecturally, what you see is what you get with the Academy of Sciences. The interior of the museum is a carnival fun house of the natural sciences. The building is transparent, visually connected to the surrounding park. There is nothing hidden. Piano’s characteristic attention to technology, detail, and exactitude is fully on display. There is no artistic pretense evident beyond the emphasis upon craft and science, although it could be argued that Piano’s refined technological fetish is unnecessarily mannered. Altogether, the Academy appears precise, fragile, and brittle.
The muscular cantilever over the de Young's cafeteria terrace
By contrast, the de Young is muscular, moody, and slightly mysterious. Herzog & de Meuron focused upon melding the building with its site, but not by broadly opening its perimeter enclosure to the park as the Academy of Sciences does. Instead, the surrounding landscape is brought inside by lozenge-shaped courtyards (some lushly planted) that divide the museum into three slender blocks. The building is permeable because it pulls the surroundings in. The permeability is also expressed at a different scale in the detailing of the all-enveloping copper skin. Dimpled and perforated, the porous copper cladding will oxidize and slowly turn green over time, further blending the de Young with Golden Gate Park (the architects say the skin is an abstraction of the effect of light filtering through the canopy of trees).
de Young: the Wilsey Court
At times, I found the flow of gallery spaces through the three parallel blocks disorienting; however, the casual interconnection was intentional. Visitors are allowed to experience the housed collections in a flexible way. They can view them in a linear fashion, or jump from one block to another to experience both the distinctions and connections between the art of different cultures and eras.
The de Young's "fifth elevation"
The predominantly low-slung form of the de Young has as its counterpoint a twisting tower that looms 144 feet-high above the treetops. The tower’s observation floor offers splendid views of San Francisco in all directions and of the roof of the museum below, carefully composed as the building’s “fifth elevation." Allusive, brooding, and vaguely post-apocalyptic in appearance, the de Young is as much about regarding the world around it as it is about the artifacts it contains.
de Young: Fern Court and stair to lower level
I like the de Young Museum because Herzog & de Meuron approached its design with an artist’s sensibility. They chose to elevate the project above an exercise in mere problem-solving and engineering. Its organizational parti presents unexpected juxtapositions that challenge traditional museum presentation. It is awkward, engaging, and visceral in a way that the technologically sophisticated Academy of Sciences is not. Renzo Piano may excel in problem-solving, but his Academy lacks the artistry evident to me in Herzog & de Meuron’s landmark building.
(1) My guess is that I may have trekked as many as seven miles during my meandering, day-long walkabout. As dense and compact as San Francisco is, it’s still a big city. I did ride the Muni streetcar on my return leg from Golden Gate Park back to my hotel near Union Square.
(2) The San Francisco Federal Building has been certified LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse is LEED Gold-certified.