San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom Synagogue (Image Source:
From John King:

As cities mature, they are shaped by the constant tension between old and new, tall and short, broad strokes and fine grain.

Now there’s a fresh example of this tension in San Francisco, and it’s not some cloud-popping tower downtown. It’s a synagogue in the largely residential Richmond District that rises just 40 feet – but commands a prominent corner with a strong modern design that pushes the notion of neighborhood context to the breaking point.

From a neighbor (300 of which had signed a petition against the project in 2005):

I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it…Nobody on the block likes it. Would you?

San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom Synagogue (Image Source:
A question to which we’d like to say yes, but in all honesty, probably not if we lived right next door. And just to be clear, these aren’t renderings, they’re photographs.
UPDATE (8/12): From another plugged-in “NeighborOnTheBlock“: “The sentiment expressed by the neighbor is not shared by all of us on the block….It is unfortunate that he was able to speak on our behalf.”
New synagogue livens up Richmond District [SFGate]

83 thoughts on “Saitowitz Scores With The Critics (But Not With Those Next Door)”
  1. Another fluff piece from our wonderful architecture critic who does not even live here. The design is ugly but whatever, better than the whole foods development.

  2. Love the design, I do take the neighbors point that it is a very bold statement for a residential area but I would still love to see it built.

  3. oh, well fancy that.
    I do think once the trees grow in the building will seem be dominating for the block. Although I would like to see some planted on the other side as well.

  4. San Francisco State University was also a bold statement at one point. Now it looks like a provincial governmental building in the former East Germany.
    Lawyers: Can the neighbors sue the architects or developers for building an ‘eye sore’ next to their property, if their property can not be sold in large part because of it? I bet that expert witnesses would line up around the block to testify.

  5. Other than the student union I like a lot of the buildings at San Francisco State University
    Nobody can tell me this is a bigger eyesore than about 1/3 of the ugly buildings in the Richmond or Geary Blvd.
    Actually nobody can tell me this is an eyesore at all

  6. “Can the neighbors sue the architects or developers for building an ‘eye sore’ next to their property, if their property can not be sold in large part because of it?”
    Actually, the presence of a Conservative Jewish temple increases the value and ease of sale of neighboring homes, because some Conservative (and most/all Orthodox) Jews will only live within walking distance of their temple, to not drive on the Sabbath.

  7. @Gman — I sure hope not, because if that fills with rainwater, it will crush the structure below 🙂
    But seriously, anyone know how long it takes those trees out front to mature (and how high they will be)? Mature trees will make the thing more-interesting.

  8. With regard to this synagogue or the buildings at SFSU, they were built at a certain periods in time reflecting that
    What would you prefer to see?

  9. The richmond is largely residential, yes, but this is on the corner of Clement and the highway. Clement well beyond this isn’t residential, and there are much bigger churches.

  10. I’m not a big fan of the Saitowitz designs I’ve seen on SocketSite (e.g., his glass box proposed for 1527-45 Pine, and his climate-controlled display cases at 1234 Howard). But this is one of their better efforts. In my opinion, this modern building makes the “historic” Victorians down the block (although not the first adjacent building) look like shabby little structures, leftovers from a long-forgotten era.
    Imagine if this new Saitowitz building was built as a new branch of the San Francisco Public Library. In that case, I bet no one would be complaining.

  11. There is a strong tradition of synagogues of the last 60 years or so utilizing striking modern architecture and geometric forms. This is what a modern Jewish temple looks like. It would have been absurd to force faux bay windows on this building to make it “fit the neighborhood.”

  12. There are lot’s of mature trees (too many?) covering this building. They show up in the shadow on the photo. They are between 13th and 14th. When the new ones grow in you’ll hardly see it from 13th. Too bad.

  13. Crude forms, which are too large. No grace, no wit. A hammer blow to the block. This gives fuel to the stereotype that contemporary architecture is bullying.

  14. Can the neighbors sue the architects or developers for building an ‘eye sore’ next to their property, if their property can not be sold in large part because of it?
    I certainly hope not (I’m sure you could sue… people sue for just about everything, like suing McD’s because you’re fat)
    I neither like nor dislike this building. I definitely find it interesting. My hesitation to buy near this wouldn’t be based on the architecture, it would be due to the increased traffic during services. (Fri night/Saturday)

  15. The view you’re not getting in those shots is the one off of Clement (it’s in the article). I suspect that’s because that the hideous angle. I live four blocks from here and pass by it all the time. The four story high gray siding looks like a low-grade industrial plant from that angle. The only adornment is a doorway for the trash bins, which sit on the sidewalk.
    The low angle also masks the fact that the HVAC is exposed on the top of the building. Would it have been so tricky to extend the facade another six feet to hide all of that?

  16. Wow… what an eye sore. I’m sure some people out there won’t share my opinion that it’s ugly as sin, but who can deny that it’s totally inappropriate for that neighborhood?

  17. I really like the design, except for how it comes up to the adjacent house in the second picture. There is something uncomfortable about that to me. But otherwise, I really applaud the creativity and am glad it was built.

  18. Hate it, and feel sorry for the neighbors (and anyone that has to see this thing regularly).
    Saitowitz is so 2006. Can we move on, please?

  19. coincidentally drove by this place on Friday and wondered what the hell it was. In my opinion its ugly and it totally out of place wedged onto that corner lot. It should be properly sited on a large green belt.

  20. My guess is that there are few windows or doors on the street level for security reasons– to protect from bombs and gunmen. I rarely go to syanagogues, but the last two I went to, in LA and in Madrid, the security was like at an airport. Unfortuantely, there are attacks on synagogues. Having the windows face an interior courtyard and having just one entrance makes security sense.

  21. This is really an example of a very arrogant architect forcing HIS viewpoint on a neighborhood, without any consideration for context, or respect of the historical character of the surrounding area.
    I don’t like Saitowitz’s work..He never respects context. he ignores it.he forces his singular, sterile architecture on the city.
    You can like the form all you want. you can love the elegant, minimal statement. It just doesnt belong here.

  22. I rode past there the other day and wondered what it was. Thanks SS for clueing me in!
    Ironically I think this discussion is a capsule of what happens in SF when a striking new building is proposed. Basically we have two choices: 1) have architecture people think is “boring” or 2) have architecture some people hate, some people love.

  23. This may sound odd, but I think it would have worked better if it had been flipped – the square part when the circular part is. This would have helped because:
    1: The square part would have been a neutral buffer to the residences next door.
    2: The more interesting circular part would have been visible on
    3: The Clement side would not be just a boring box.
    4: The circular part would have worked better on the corner where it could be seen from all sides.
    Oh well, nothing to do about it now. Too bad that Mission Bay can’t have any building as interesting as this one.

  24. “Hate Your Neighbor Synagogue”
    Putting this building cheek by jowl with detached houses is mean. It’s as bad as that tower in SSF on a residential street.

  25. I like it. And I can understand if my house was next door, that I may not like it as much. I’m surprised the Sf planning commission allowed it to be built, considering how tough they are on architectural design that strays from the SF norm.

  26. I hate the phrase “neighborhood context” used by denizens of SF because more often than not it’s twisted to mean “I personally don’t like the style of that building.” I think the synagogue is perfectly in scale with the rest of the neighborhood and is no doubt better looking than most of the SFH shacks nearby, not to mention the mix between old and modern which I very much like.

  27. I have to agree with g on this one. (and again, I’m not sure I like this building)
    the roof is the exact same height as the rest of the buildings, so it doesn’t tower over the houses at all. and it’s the same color palate as surrounding houses as well.
    The difference is that it is strikingly modern, compared to the victorians/bay windows nearby.
    but is this much different really than one of those Mediterranean or latin-inspired churches or an orthodox Eastern church next to a victorian?
    For instance, does St. Paul’s church or St. Peter and Paul’s church fit in with their neighborhoods??? Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but they TOWER above the nearby Victorians, and are clearly a totally different style. I’d argue that they are out of context, despite being beautiful.
    so it seems to me (like g) that people don’t like the look of this building, and use “context” as an excuse. whereas they wouldn’t have minded a 100 foot high Gothic church steeple, equally out of context.
    FWIW: in London you also have victorians right next to huge gothic and other styled churches. You also have victorians right next to uber-modern and mid-century buildings as well

  28. @Dan
    Designing a building to be more secure doesn’t have to mean designing an ugly building. I suspect the relatively new JCC at 3200 California St. was built with similar considerations in mind, and it manages not to look like a bunker made from Duplo blocks. It’s a great building on the inside as well.

  29. I’m surprised the Sf planning commission allowed it to be built, considering how tough they are on architectural design that strays from the SF norm.
    So am I, actually. It is built right up to the lot line with no setback at all. Would a neighboring house be permitted to extend itself right out to the sidewalk? That’s really the problem here–this building has the same motivations as a big box store–consuming every horizontal and vertical inch allowed. The barren blank walls at ground level are appropriate for a mall parking lot, not a walkable neighborhood.

  30. When I see comments (above) like “totally inappropriate for the neighborhood” and “totally out of place” and “without any consideration for context, or respect of the historical character of the surrounding area,” I feel that the real San Francisco will always be a provinicial little town, stuffed with creaky, drafty Victorians, and plenty of rundown shacks (don’t get me started on North Beach).
    It’s one thing to judge the aesthetic appeal of a building, but it’s quite another to constantly cite the “historic” nature of old, or old-fashioned housing.
    Maybe this new Saitowitz doesn’t belong in San Francisco–but in real, dynamic cities like New York or Los Angeles. After all, San Francisco raised quite a stink over the design of the Transamerica Building, too.

  31. Why don’t people just buy homes in District 2/3 where this kind of crap is not tolerated? If it’s because of prices, then just squeeze into a smaller unit… at least you wont have to worry about this sort of liberal fascist stuff happening in your neck of the woods and killing your resell.

  32. Reminiscent of Louis I. Kahn with the bold geometric forms.
    FWIW, I’m not going to argue they are a great neighbor, but the house to the left of the “bowl” does not face a shear wall (hey, shaded airspace is better than no airspace at all!). Also the unit next to the “wall of sheet metal” overlooks the the terrace entrance to the synagogue (see the front entrance photo with the stairs). If the synagogue was a residential building instead, I’m sure they would get no airspace at all (except at the back of their unit).

  33. I love it from 14th St, but it is pretty hideous from Clement. The real question – when will skateboarders be allowed to tackle this bad boy?

  34. “I don’t like Saitowitz’s work..He never respects context. he ignores it.he forces his singular, sterile architecture on the city.”
    I thought his bridge house related very well with the context. The parcel could have been reshaped to create a flat pad and the drainage diverted, but instead Saitowitz designed a house to span the drainage and preserve the natural contours. Yeah, it stands out but any house would.
    Someone else commented that the temple will increase property values because some orthodox Jews will want to live within walking distance. I can see that effect, but I’m pretty sure that the orthodox are OK with taking a cab or bus on the sabbath just so long as they don’t have to operate any equipment. Can anyone in the know confirm ?

  35. its a good building by a good architect.
    i would be pleased to have this in my neighborhood — especially instead of a new / recycled, mediocre contextual structure that adds nothing, just the absence of debate.
    theres good and bad contemporary architecture, just like everything else, and in my view this is clearly in the very good category.
    This town gets too intimidated from trying. LIberal self image, and conservative results, other than social ideology.

  36. I don’t want a building to appear exactly like the building next door. I agree that it is important that a city welcomes new designs: it keeps the area alive. However, at the same time, it is important for a building to respect the area.
    This building is a big middle finger to the neighbors.
    Another gothic church, or a faux victorian is not required. But this? A boring wall on one side and a big half circle on another. Why not something like this:
    or this:
    These are buildings that inspire. These are buildings that would enhance the area. Instead, we have folks praying that the trees will soften the hard edges.
    Blah. A bunker in a residential neighborhood is not good design.

  37. Planning caved to the least threatening path: neighbors or congregation lawyers.
    This abortion would never happen west of California st.

  38. @Louis: I’m no architect, but is this really something other than just “recycled” and “mediocre?” If so, I just don’t see it.
    I see a half oval and a faux metal square designed to shock and create conflict rather than meaningful debate.

  39. Love it! Amazing! I’d welcome a building like this next door. The contrast between the building and its neighbors only serves to highlight the unique attributes of each.

  40. “This abortion would never happen west of California st.”
    West of California St.? Do you mean in Lincoln Park, or in the Pacific Ocean?

  41. So if the lawyers build something they can design it however they want and put it wherever they want, meanwhile we can’t build housing because those same lawyers are out there to block everything.

  42. It’s just really not that awful, except for the color scheme/materials. And that particular corner? It’s kinda run down, actually. I think the neighbors should be getting over themselves. It’s not ruining anyone’s view (there isn’t one, there) and it’s not going to be any kind of lifestyle change. What IS going to suck there on 14th avenue is when the old public health hospital in the Presidio gets converted into condos and affordable housing. Anyone have any updates on that one?

  43. I mean suck for the people living on 14th avenue, because of the increased traffic and such. They might not be so bothered by it once you cross Clement, but it will still change that part of the neighborhood. And that’s not to say I’m anti putting housing there – it’s just not going to be as nice for the current neighbors to have, well, more neighbors.
    I live on 7th, so it won’t bug me at all. 🙂

  44. I kind of like the building, it’s better than most of the other junk he designs. But it overwhelms the site.

  45. Wow, finally something interesting to look at in the Richmond. I firmly believe that anything even remotely unique in this city has to piss off a significant number of residents.

  46. I have to say, I think I like it. But then again I’ve only seen the photographs not the building in situ. It’s not what most people think of as contextual, but as another poster pointed out the height and the color palette match the neighboring houses. The massing is different, but I think that adds interest to the block.
    My question is, now that this is built, could I now buy the house next door, tear it down and replace it with a much more modern design?

  47. Why didn’t they use real Jeruselum limestone instead of imitating it with concrete and paint? It’s not like there’s any Jewish connections there or anything. Might as well have made the damn thing out of stucco!

  48. Yes, there will be vastly differing camps with regard to the design of this building.
    By many modernists standards, it will be seen as brilliant, elegant, unique, deeply spiritual: a success. they really don’t care about neighborhood context, or respecting scale or the street edge.
    The other side is that the building does NOT have to be a faux victorian, or gothic, or whatever..just to blend in and be “contextual”. I think there should be a subtle balance by combining historical context and modern urban principles. the building needs more scale, more articulation, more “friendliness” toward the neighborhood.
    But the truth is, in my opinion, is that Saitowitz just does NOT care at all about these qualities. He likes making bold statements, pure art pieces, without regard to the surroundings.
    Talented or not, I call that architectural arrogance.

  49. Are the architectural and planning rules for religious buildings in SF the same as those for businesses or nonreligious not-for-profits? And is the organization paying property taxes? I suspect not. If that is the case, the neighborhood has taken a big hit to its tax base.

  50. I think the temple was already located there; this is just a new building. So no new tax hit for SF, beyond the tax exemptions the temple (like other religious institutions) already received.

  51. Awesome! Surrealism meets the crusty old Richmond. Just the thought of all the NIMBY’s cringing when they drive by in their Range Rovers makes it worthwhile.
    On a side note, it is the role of cultural institutions to challenge us; every neighborhood in the city needs about four or five idiosyncratic structures such as this, just to be sure that architecture remains a point of active discussion.
    The architecture of this city should be as diverse as its residents, and we benefit from the occasional building which does not blindly replicate historic precedents (… and this is coming from someone who loves Victorians).

  52. The more I see it on the front page of SFGate the more it grows on me. Imagine how lame you would have to be to attend these neighborhood meetings to vote down building a synagogue in your neighborhood. These people are not just haters, but apparently they are unemployed handout takers who have too much time on their hands.

  53. The funny irony is that this building, if it ends up winning a lot of awards (as it appears it is headed in that direction) will probably INCREASE property values in the neighborhood. Imagine how many great opportunities we missed out that were replaced with stucco (a la Whole Foods on Stanyan)

  54. On a weekday off walkaboutlast winter I came across this project by accident. Wow!
    As an Architect I really like this and I am pleased to see that Saitowitz can indeed do curves.
    But, but, but, I agree that there really needed to be a bit of a buffer, in the form of a setback, on the north side of the building on 14th. I am only thinking about 8 to 10 feet, to make some air between the curved form and the house next door.

  55. In 15 years people are going to feel lucky to live near it — real estate flyers will highlight it as part of the area.

  56. I was really surprised when I came upon this building on Clement a few weeks ago. I figured out that it was a religious structure of some sort, but didn’t realize it was a synagogue. I like the look of it, but it presents kind of an unfriendly face to Clement St.

  57. I am not a huge fan of the design but it somewhat interesting. The real problem is the way it is shoehorned into the site. There has got to be a better way to transition between something modern like this and the older buildings that are part of the neighborhood.

  58. The sentiment expressed by the neighbor is not shared by all of us on the block. The homeowner next door happens to be a miserable person and an awful neighbor. It is unfortunate that he was able to speak on our behalf.

  59. The only people who could possibly admire this building have been drinking the Saitowitz Kool-Aide. What is going to happen in those scary spaces beneath the “menorah”, besides gradoo build-up and rat family gatherings? I’m really curious how a whole community was convinced this was a brilliant idea. Saitowitz must be one slick talker. I sure hope the lighting, the space, something,anything inside there is spectacular.

  60. Great building/wrong location. Dominants the corner. Agree this building needs a field to sit on.
    Nickname: half cantalope.

  61. Baruch Atah Adonoi Elohanu Melech-ha-olam
    Blessed is he Stanley Saitowitz who hath brought forth urbane designs in a dull neighborhood.

  62. Ah the irony. Many comments here vacillating between “it’s boring” and “it stands out too much.” How Saitowitz was able to synthesize those poles is beyond me.
    Frankly though, and I’m no architect, but I always vote for ugly and inappropriate architecture whenever I am able. “Interesting” gains meaning and “context” with time, but the same old same old is boring forever. Keep the history, but don’t use it to foreclose on the future. Neighborhood character is overrated.

  63. I don’t see the big deal. This is in the richmond, so it’s not like they built it a neighborhood that people care about or with design history.
    Hope this building doesn’t distract people from the standard Richmond architecture of stucco apartment buildings, trans-fat heavy restaurants and massage parlors.

  64. I like it from the pictures. It may seem out of context, but from the pictures it appears to be a block where wave after wave of architectural style was used by wave after wave of developers. This is just another style in the row– and given the great contextuality of the add on top floor of the building next door, meh on context. I suppose the real great offense here is that urbanity has arrived in the richmond. Frankly, the richmond could benefit from more architectural variety.

  65. Having actually seen and experienced this building, I can tell you that it is an extremely poor building conceptually, tactically and technically. It “visually crushes” the neighboring buildings and gives modern architecture a bad name. Conceptually, its scaleless “Minimalism Uber Alles” aesthetic seems perversely inappropriate. Tactically, the essential positioning of its reductive elements (i.e. the concrete “bowl” and metal “block”) should at least be inverted — with the “bowl” marking the street corner and the “block” set into adjacent alignment with the neighboring fabric of row houses. Lastly, in terms of the most basic technique it is a failure. A minimalist architect should, at least, master the integration of building services. Highly visible from the street is a mess of rooftop mechanical equipment–in the photos that I have seen published of the building this reality has been conveniently “photoshopped” out.

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