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Sam Hall Kaplan

Cutting Through the Bay Area Fog

September 28, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

SAN FRANCISCO — One cannot expect a variety of developers, each with his own aesthetic biases, favorite architects, anticipated markets and the need to soothe the prejudices of assorted investors, to produce buildings that will create a livable city.

No matter how conscientious or public spirited--and there are such developers--they must be given guidelines that put their projects into a civic context that acknowledges and respects the adjacent streetscapes, neighboring buildings and the emerging image of the city itself.

Those guidelines are what planning is all about, or at least what it should be about. And if good design is not demanded in the planning process, a city most likely will not get it; nor will it deserve it.

The problem is deciding what constitutes good design and how guidelines can be drafted to encourage it, without becoming too dictatorial so as to stifle creativity, or too political to distort well-intentioned goals.

This is a complex problem this self-conscious city has been struggling with over the last five years as it has stumbled forward to produce an innovative plan to guide downtown growth. The plan, after much debate, was approved last year and is at present reeling under the weight of some heavy criticism and the usual convoluted local politics.

There is much in the painful, protracted San Francisco ordeal that Los Angeles, and other cites, can benefit from, however tardy. Better late than never to try to instill a sense of character and humanity into the form and feel of our urban landscapes.

To recognize the need in San Francisco, as elsewhere, for some sort of guidelines one has only to experience the banal office buildings that have risen in the downtown here over the last decade.

In a city that takes so much pride in its architectural heritage, the buildings with too few exceptions are just as insensitive to the urban fabric as those that have gone up elsewhere in the office boom that has rocked most of the nation's principal cities.

Indeed, the recently constructed office towers in San Francisco look like buildings that have risen elsewhere, and everywhere. So much for this proud city's singularity.

While overwhelming landmarks, most of the new development in San Francisco has turned a once finely sculptured skyline into a stack of anonymous crates and, worse, once distinctive streets into alienating canyons, earning the city the nickname of Houston-by-the-bay.

In fact, if it wasn't for the bay and the bridge, the hills and the clang of cable cars, San Francisco could be mistaken for just another mid-sized city in the center of a sprawling suburban region sadly searching for itself in yesterday's fog-shrouded myths.

San Francisco's downtown plan was in part a reasonable reaction to the excessive bulldozing, creeping homogenization and overly aggressive marketing of the city. It calls for, among many things, protecting landmark structures, open spaces and views, banning tacky544434535retail uses to enliven sidewalks, and buildings of more complex, interesting shapes.

Where the plan went awry was in becoming too prescriptive. Not content to just establish performance standards or design goals, the plan, in effect, dictates design. The results have been a few strained and strange looking buildings, marked by little peaked roofs on awkwardly detailed and tapered towers. So much for design by formula.

The design review process also was found to have a number of flaws, including timing and the role of a review panel. It appears from reports that the design review in its first go around was conducted like a beauty contest, with an emphasis on how the building1931504751worked consistent with the plan's guidelines.

Such biases are typical of design juries dominated by academics and professionals, who in the spotlight are usually, and unfortunately, more sensitive to transient fads and "artistic" considerations than to realistic urban design considerations.

Further complicating the implementation of the plan has been an arbitrary cap on new construction, as if the vacancy rate and declining economy of San Francisco are not enough to slow development and give its residents and posturing politicians pause.

One hopes the plan's first year was a valuable learning process and that the obvious flaws can be corrected. Certainly, the well-intentioned effort of San Francisco to better shape its wavering downtown should continue, if only as model for Los Angeles' wavering downtown and wobbling planning process.

Despite San Francisco's tendency in recent years to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to architecture, once in awhile it aims straight and appears to be on target. Such was the case when it gave approval last month to the ambitious plans for a design center to serve the now fragemented interior design industry in that design-conscious city.

Designed by architects Mark Mack and the firm of Robinson Mills & Williams, the San Francisco center promises to be a well-scaled, lively structure, with showrooms and a variety of services lining an interior "streetscape."

Construction of the 350,000-square-foot San Francisco facility at 9th and Brannan streets on the edge of downtown is scheduled to start by the end of the year. That will be not a day too late, for beginning construction this month is a similar center in San Diego.

Designed by Johannes Van Tilburg, the San Diego facility calls for a first-phase, 320,000-square-foot "post- modern" facility on a 17-acre site in suburban Sorrento Mesa.

All this shapes up to a healthy competition between the new centers and the expanding Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, which in turn should help raise the public's design consciousness.

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