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Bay Area Architecture: The Identity Crisis Behind San Francisco’s Skyscraper Boom

By John Kenyon
Friday March 28, 2008
The current and proposed view of the San Francisco skyline from the East Bay.
John Kenyon
The current and proposed view of the San Francisco skyline from the East Bay.

Back in the late 1960s I had lunch in Regent’s Park in London with the editor of the RIBA Journal. As we strolled around in that lovely landscape, he gestured to the new Post Office Tower, a novel “foreign object” rising above the grand old trees and Regency terraces. Almost 600 feet high, crowned by a revolving-view restaurant and hung with satellite dishes, it was a living insult to any passionate contextualist. “I don’t dislike it,” said my colleague, “but it quite takes away that special joy of London—a collection of distinct neighborhoods.” 

His observation returns to my mind when I try to assess the impact, on a Berkeley resident, of the promised “made-over” skyline already appearing on Rincon Hill, not to mention that feverishly touted developer’s dream, the future Transbay Tower. For although London and San Francisco are very different, they face similar threats, particularly loss of unique character. London is loved for its historic river, ancient buildings, and enviably livable Georgian streets and squares, not for Cesar Pelli’s 800-foot Canada Tower, frowning down on the otherwise lively new Docklands. Similarly, San Francisco is adored for its European ambiance and breathtaking views of bridges, water and dramatic headlands, not for the Bank of America’s dark brooding (ex-)world headquarters, or its companion folly, the Transamerica pyramid. 

Living in Berkeley from the mid-’50s, one watched the pastel city across the bay change from a friendly, low-to-midrise affair, spread over recognizable hills, to a pincushion of corporate towers obliterating the beloved topography. By the late 1960s, the city’s planners and shapers had realized the threat to adjacent Telegraph Hill and North Beach, and, cleverly if brutally, steered the new Embarcadero Project—that “city within the city”—into walling-off further highrise expansion north of its narrow towers. 

In the 30-some years since that bold intervention, this vibrant business-area, now expanded south beyond Mission, has filled up with a good number of well-designed structures that look as though record-breaking height was not an aim. One could list Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s granite-faced (ex-)Crocker Tower at 1 Montgomery, their elegant “teardrop” building at 388 Market, or the glassy European-looking design at 101 2nd St. Though claustrophobic in places—think Bechtel’s overshadowed park—this impressive miniature Manhattan is made more bearable by its increasingly handsome public waterfront. To many of us who still regard San Francisco as our cultural downtown, this expanded financial district feels like a fait accompli, to be left in peace for a bit while other more pressing projects are tackled—like making a superb job of Mission Bay.  

As happy regionalists, many of us sustain an active interest in promoting neglected Oakland, aiding struggling Richmond, or saving dear old Berkeley from headlong “smart growth”! Thus it comes as an unwelcome distraction in this time of endless war and looming economic disaster to find San Francisco—or its political leadership—so totally gung-ho about a higher than ever downtown. 

While I write this I am looking at the February 2007 issue of San Francisco Magazine, whose striking cover is an aerial view of an impressive wood study model, with an “improved” Financial District in the foreground. All the buildings painted white—I count 22—are either proposed, approved, or under construction. SO far so good, except that a handful of them—the much-discussed Transbay Tower, the adjacent Twin Towers 2, and a few others—rise above all else, upsetting the unity and balance of the whole, while inevitable raising the ante for future development across the greater area. The recent completion of a 60-story apartment tower on Rincon Hill is startling proof that this new developer-planner alliance means business. 

In itself, the great southward expansion begun in 1986 when city residents voted to encourage high buildings beyond Market Street, seems natural and inevitable, protecting the established character of Nob Hill, Russian Hill and North Beach, while re-vitalizing a decaying old industrial terrain. The alarming thing, however, is not expansion, but an almost sudden obsession with competitive skyscraping! Seemingly out of the blue, Renzo Piano’s Twin Towers aim to be the nation’s third and fourth tallest buildings, while the promised marvel close-by, rising above a “Grand Central Station of the West” will dominate even those, if unrestrained egos prevail. 

One would like to think, that something as tall as the 1,250-foot Empire State Building—an image already invoked—would receive deep design attention, but so far, the architectural picture is not encouraging. Some time ago, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the regional body created in 2001 to bring about the construction of a new super transit terminal on the site of the obsolete bus station at First and Mission, devised a limited competition between three major developers and their chosen architects. The design teams were Richard (now Lord) Rogers, one of Britain’s high-tech stars, in internationally famous Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and Cesar Pelli, architect of many prestigious giants including the 1,483 foot Patronas (twin) Towers in Malaysia. 

Apparently the competition program mandated a huge attention-getting skyscraper crowing a grand, partially underground transportation interchange. Suddenly, eccentric little San Francisco, always delighted to not be Manhattan, has declared itself the West Coast rival! The three teams worked frantically away, and on Monday, Aug. 6 of last year, their large, impressive models were unveiled in City Hall before an admiring crowd of officials, TV crews, and interested public. The designs were intriguing as elegant models are always are, but disturbing—three extravagantly tall commercial towers posing as sculpture! None of them equaled the best work of their famous lead-designers. To me, the Richard Rogers entry—four separate buildings bung inside a giant “erector-set” frame, looked the most promising. SOM’s offering, the next best, seemed to strive too hard to be exciting, rising from a dented pyramid into a twisty, hard-to-comprehend shaft, but the Pelli design was way the most disturbing. Claming elegance through simplicity, it posed as a well-behaved glass tower, but with a strangely weak form, curving in as it ascended. An emasculated blow-up of Cleopatra’s Needle, it will be seen by detractors, if built, as a giant, shiny phallus, exacerbated by attention-getting height. Ranging from 1,200 to 1,375 feet, all three towers are way taller that the 770-foot Bank of America World HQ—still downtown’s dominant landmark. 

A few days after the unveiling, the Transbay Authority’s advisory committee voted in favor of the sleek “respectable” Pelli design. A couple of weeks later, the Authority itself seconded their choice, and there for the moment we are stuck. perplexed design professionals, and people just plain uncomfortable with ego-built sky-high towers. But at this early stage, all is far from lost. The daunting task of financing an ambitious multi-level terminal in the crowded middle of San Francisco, is lengthy and far from assured. To many, the whole concept, especially the location, sounds frighteningly centralist and vulnerable, evoking visions of terrorist attack and seismic disaster, but even without these familiar fears, there are powerful cultural reasons for resisting this “madeover” skyline. 

Collectively we remain the captive audience of our everyday surroundings. Paris of the great boulevards, Florence, Georgian Bath, etc., created a sense of order and predictability, of civic belonging and social pleasures. At best they were eminently livable. You didn’t have to commute from Walnut Creek to work on California Street, and in those lowrise cities, unusual height was reserved solely for buildings of civic or religious importance—the church spire or the dome of city hall. Even today, almost anybody looking up at the West Front of Notre Dame will find it more inspiring than forty levels of identical office floors. 

Alas, the only “cathedral” in the city’s Financial District is that secular novelty the Transamerica Pyramid, but that apart, the gleaming office towers and highrise hotels paraded along Market Street or enjoyed from the quiet splendor of Yerba Buena Gardens, range from pretty good to excellent without competing for record breaking height. Think of Timothy Pfleuger’s Art Deco Pacific Telephone Building on new Montgomery Street—no Sears Tower, yet a celebration of verticality that even after 83 years playfully enhances Mario Botta’s squat SFMOMA. As civilized architecture, Pfleuger’s modest-sized jewel, or its current equivalent—think of the city’s new, eminently non-slick Federal Building—is worth a dozen 1,300-foot featureless glass shafts, which brings me back to my opening comments. 

Apropos their huge flamboyant Transbay Tower entry, Crag Hartman, SOM’s chief designer, said a the public presentation, “in a single stroke, this design will redefine for the world San Francisco’s architectural, urban, and environmental intentions.” With all due respect for the power of bold statements, my gut response is “God help us,” for six or eight such assertive monsters would mesmerize a captive audience of millions. Large numbers of us, looking across the bay from Berkeley or Oakland, Richmond or Sausalito, at our “city on a hill” would rather not be continually reminded of World Trade, multi-million dollar condos with “world-class” views, or worse perhaps, tomorrow’s commute!