With the statement, “[t]here really is no difference between most of the new ‘product’ being built in ‘the city’ and what is being built in Chicago or any other North American city,” a reader sparks an interesting discussion around San Francisco’s Architectural identity.
It’s a topic worthy of its own post, so we’re hijacking a couple of the original comments and opening up the discussion to a broader audience. Feel free to help answer the question, “what defines San Francisco’s architectural identity and where is it headed?”
Shoreline (41 Federal): Images And An Update [SocketSite]

23 thoughts on “The Future Of San Francisco’s Architectural Identity”
  1. The problem is that San Francisco prides itself on having an “unique” identity, and this used to be reflected in the architecture of the city (for better or worse). I would start with Richard Longstreth’s thoughtful book “On the Edge of the World” which explains how four architects helped San Francisco to create an architectural identity. Coxhead, Polk, Schweinforth, followed later by Morgan and Maybeck, Gardiner Dailey, Wurster and and William Turnbull all produced buildings that really could only be in Northern Cailfornia. None of their buildings would work in Chicago, for they spoke a Bay Area vocabulary that fit into our unique and beautiful landscape. I do not see how most of the new developements in our city differ in any way from Chicago or Miami except in cost.

  2. I totally understand and agree with the architect poster’s comments. So many new SF developments could just as easily (or even more appropriately) work in Atlanta, Miami, or Chicago–mainly because they rest on very current design trends (or are completely devoid of design) rather than something that will always make sense within the context of SF’s architectural texture. Honestly, wouldn’t the Palms make more sense waterside in San Diego? Is it mandatory that every new building in the vicinity of the Ball Park also be covered in “Lee Press-On Bricks”? Just as with every other design trend, long, low lines, black granite counter tops, and stainless steel appliances will all one day bespeak a particular bygone era in design.

  3. Since we’re on this subject, which new or existing development(s) in SF would you guys consider “unique” or “San Francisco” in design?

  4. Buildings from the past decade or so that I think think have some level of architectural integrity, fit in with (but don’t blend into) their surroundings, and make me happy to look at: Hills Plaza, the St. Regis, Museum Parc, Yerba Buena Lofts. Buildings I don’t feel meet any of those criteria and make me sad to look at: The Brannan, The Metroplitan, any building (like the Bluxome lofts) covered in Lee Press-On Bricks, and everything on Berry Street.

  5. I personally like the Brannan, though I agree with Berry St and Mission Bay. The whole area looks like LegoLand 🙂

  6. As we progress in time, everything in this world will look more and more similar. A number of the architects mentioned above designed buildings in a style that was more conducive to smaller size buildings. It would be difficult to build a highrise in the Arts and Crafts style.
    I also think the Palms has a number of elements that are “San Francisco.”

  7. Although this is not an “urban” project, I always admired “Sea Ranch” up on the Sonoma coast. It was built within the last 25 years, is modern yet sits within the spectacular landscape without destroying it. It also used “local talent” by employing Bay Area regionalist designers such as Lawrence Halprin, William Turnball, Richard Whitaker and Obie Bowman and their work is all aging quite well.

  8. An architectural identity must be allowed to evolve, which does not necessarily mean that it cannot deviate at all from the patch by which it has arrived at its current location.
    The new residential skyline moving south from downtown is a good thing and it in no way diminishes SF’s existing unique architectural identity, which embodies the uniqueness of SF and its residents. All this means is more architectural diversity for SF and I am loathe to ever criticize something that promotes diversity.
    Yes, these buildings and residences could easily fit right in with Chicago or Miami, but can Miami or Chicago say that they have the kind of architectural diversity that SF will soon have once these new areas are fully developed?

  9. David Baker’s complex on 18th & Arkansas blends in with the neighborhood, is great to look at, and seems ‘uniquely San Francisco’ to me.

  10. Yes! David Baker and Assoc. did great work on the 18th and Arkansas complex. If you go to their website you can see how many citations this design was awarded for being unique and yet still respecting the existing urban context. I agree with previous post that the design is “uniquely San Francisco”. This project provides great density without becoming another tower that blocks views and light.

  11. Architectural identity? I don’t exactly think that most of those Edwardian houses that we see throughout the city showcase a “world-class” architectural style. They look a bit more institutionalized to me. I personally like the way the city is going with new development and the fact that it is finally catching up to modern times in terms of development….thanks to Vancouver for setting this standard.
    If you want to see your unique San Francisco’ish developments, they will always be preserved at Marina Green, Pac Heights, Alamo Square, etc. However, how awesome is it that all these amazing high-rises are going into the SOMA/South Beach neighborhood and slowly but surely gentrifying the area. I’ve lived down there for a year and a half and have already seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood for the better, in terms of amenitites. Wait until they’re done with all the development around Mission Bay, 3rd Street corridor, Rincon Hill, Transbay Terminal, etc….we’re going have even more amazing neighborhoods in the city to explore.

  12. It’s hard to have a unique San Francisco style with the high density residential towers that are filling in SOMA. A building which looks like a 60 story Eduardian?

  13. Someone commented on architectural diversity – I think that is a key concept if you are not going to design in a predominant style of a city (e.g. Boston brownstones, Miami art deco, etc.) I think the Bay Area is so beautiful because the landscape and views everywhere you turn are unique…they vary…diversity. Monumental buildings need to do the same. Why SF planning thinks it is ok to have that too similarly-designed, same height crap on Berry street is beyond me. Also, the continual design scheme of twin towers (a la 1 Rincon, Infinity, Metropolitan…even the Beacon high rises on King) is using a concept in the wrong way. To have two towers, you’re saying that the design is so great on one of the towers, the city gets TWO of them. You’re saying your work is monumental. Would the WTC in NYC been as cool with just one of those towers? Heck no. Monumental it was. Maybe one or two developments in this city might be worthy of allowing two buildings, but there are TOO MANY being allowed today. Even with one tower shorter than the other (1 Rincon, Infinity again) it’s not enough differentiation – especially if several developments in the immediate vicinty have the same scheme. This is basic architecture stuff! SF Planning folks should be fired and Developers hands slapped!

  14. What’s uniquely San Francisco? – I think of the buildings which are pacific, luminescent, vulnerable, elemental, whimsical — from sunset stucco Deco numbers to the only-in-SF (ok maybe Tokyo) concrete & glass phenonenal Yerba Buena Lofts — to the new see-through shimmering Federal building. THESE are uniquely San Francisco. As for all the derivative press-on brick facades and all the condos with exposed flim flam plywood exteriors — well, this is the bland stuff which could land in any city, won’t endure, and makes our authentic new buildings all the more unique.

  15. Imagine if Hitchcock were alive today and filming Vertigo. What locations would he choose to have in the backround as he told his story? The movie Vertigo was his gift of love to Hitch’s favorite city, San Francisco. His interest in San Francisco was due to the unique character of the city and part of this attraction was to the romantic history the city and the beautiful landscapes. Are we preserving either?

  16. I would love to see San Francisco develop along Chicago lines. In answer to Anonymous at 6:03 on the 11th…SF is no where close to Chicago in terms of architectural diversity. Never been to Miami. Some of the new stuff going up in SF is great but much of it, primarily the stucco and fake brick buildings are hideous.

  17. My job used to take me to Chicago and New York frequently. Each time I would go, I would notice that new residential developments had appeared or could see progress on others under construction. It was always astonishing when returning home to SF to note the striking difference in the quality of design, workmanship and exterior finishes. Perhaps the differences in climate and market demand have a lot to do with it, but the highest-caliber (and priced) developments in SF usually are sub-par to even the most budget-level developments in those cities. There, you simply don’t see suburban strip-mall style design and execution magnified and applied to large residential buildings. Only in San Francisco have I seen high-rises covered in stucco, with the street-level surfaces covered in bathroom- or kitchen-like tile where stone should be.

  18. So true Christopher. Stucco covered plywood…imagine what it looks like after twenty years (hell..five). I suppose there are all kinds of reasons, but I’ve always assumed the impermanence with which we build in california is tied to our understanding that it could all shake away tomorrow. But your observation is one I’ve noted ever since moving from New England.
    It’s horrifying not only in the quality of buildings, but in the quality of public infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, parks, etc). What should be built to last 100 years is instead built to last 10.

  19. I agree with above comments regarding the degree of difference in quality between San Francisco residential developements and what is being built in Chicago. Stucco covered plywood does not exist there and the expectations from buyers on what one gets in a luxury residential project seems to be lost in S.F. One of my favorite things to do in Chicago is to take evening strolls past many of the residential high rises and just admire the lobby and public spaces. Granite, marble, doormen, which all give a feeling of urban sophistication I feel San Francisco projects are lacking.

  20. I agree on SF not having a coherent architectural identity recently, but hang on with the knocking wood structures and wishing for the “urban sophistication” of granite, marble, and doormen — at least for the first two, seismic zone 4 is a hard place to hang much of that heavy stone overhead. And the non-freezing climate here hardly requires it the way Chicago’s or New York’s does (New York is where freezing water damage is forcing many buildings to do expensive replacements of their masonry facades on an ongoing basis it seems).
    For me, the indiginous architecture that has survived inherently involved elastic wood structures — from Julia Morgan to Maybeck to Wurster to the Eichlers — a lot of “willows” surviving where an “oak” masonry structure (or even masonry facades) would not. And yet these represent a variety of styles, but again, in my view, a very SF (maybe more fair to say California) respect for indoor/outdoor relationships, light, ventilation, views, and connection to nature, all things that combined, are only really possible in such a temperate climate.
    I have no problem with seeing new structures of steel and glass and concrete as part of SF’s architectural identity, as long as they follow this lead. That said, is the Infinity, with its fluted green glass facade interrupted by tiny jutting balconies high in the sky a good example? At least it is not trying to be like every other new building in South Beach, with a smattering of bricks ready to fall off when the big one comes (how does glass coming off sound though?)
    I see a clear and unfortunate line from lovingly crafted 1920’s romantic Spanish Colonials to every stucco’d box with styrofoam details that ruins any streetscape it descends upon in recent years. Unfortunate too that the cheapest (read roughest yet most commmon cottage cheese texture) stucco looks filthy after a year, especially in the too-light colors the developers seem to favor. And don’t get me started on how the city does not benefit (in any way, certainly not its architectural identity) by another bad new fake Vicky…

  21. Here Here Tom…well said.
    What is almost more painful than the ugly boxes with the cheapest possible material is the buildings with some degree of architectural sophistication, but are STILL built with the cheapest possible materials. As a case in point, there is that loft style building at Hayes and Gough with the housewares store on the first level. The architect obviously put some thought into making it striking and interesting, and I think in quite a pleasing way for this very design-y neighborhood. Yet the parts that want to read as sleek and metallic are actually plywood. And they’re warping. Just awful.

  22. That’s indeed a shame and I know the building, it should have been sheathed in standing seam steel! But costs are so high here and having built/remodeled some myself, I know the temptation to just spray on the stucco or paint over wood. As you said in an earlier post, it is the same approach as that taken toward public infrastructure. Perhaps this means our architectural identity will be ever-changing (not evolving) since the life-cycles seem to be getting shorter, if anything.
    Looking at places like Germany where they really do build to last, you get diversity along with permanence because what’s built can be new in style yet still persist. I go to Munich a bit and although there is a predominant traditional style of building there to be sure, there is a great variety that traces the trends of each decade. And all lovingly built to last.

  23. It’s worth remembering that this is such a young city, still just barely growing out of its cheap timber origins. The process of long-term inhabitance and capital investment has barely begun in San Francisco, on a historical scale. We compare SF to cities that have been settled for three or five times as long, but the comparison isn’t very helpful. Although modern real estate markets seem quite similar, the length of settlement and geographic distance from historic capital centers has a lot to do with what kind of investment in the built environment we see.
    On top of that, we have the modern condition by which anyone with gobs of cash can come live in what is, by many standards, one of the best cities in the world. Our desirability as a place to live attracts heaps of cash; that, plus our brief history as a place of cheap, quick money — the ultimate Gold Rush city — and I think we get the quick-buck architecture that suits our place in the modern world.

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