Magazine article Sunset

Architectural Rubbernecking in San Francisco

Magazine article Sunset

Architectural Rubbernecking in San Francisco

Article excerpt

Architectural rubbernecking in San Francisco

Like shiny-sided refrigerators standing in some open-air warehouse, boxy high-rises have gone up all over San Francisco's Financial District in the last two decades. There have been unwelcome consequences: jarring contrasts in scale, loss of sunlight at street level, the creation of windy urban canyons, a spreading visual monotony.

In response, city planners last August offered San Francisco a new Downtown Plan--with proposals that have received national attention because of their implications for other cities.

If accepted after public debate this spring and a city supervisors' vote this summer, the plan will attempt to control growth. It will also specifically encourage future architectural development to emulate the sculptural form and visual richness of older district buildings.

To acquaint you with some of the qualities the plan commends in many older and a few recent designs, we suggest a walk-- on your own or with a group.

Slow down and look up, a stone menagerie returns your gaze: above the tunnel vision of the workaday rush, you'll encounter glowering eagles, broad-browed California bear, schools of Pacific dolphin, even a rampant unicorn or two. A kaleidoscope of styles pleases the eye: stout Ionic columns with hair-roller capitals, moderne swags that might have been borrowed from some flapper's brooch, businessman's Gothic and banker's Corinthian, a hieroglyphic language of corporate symbols.

This treasury of architectural embellishment does more than please the passer-by. It also serves to bring human scale to architectural mass.

As you scan larger buildings from street level to skyline, look for three component zones, labeled in the photograph on page 90; ornament has different functions in each zone. You'll see styles and thematic concerns of several eras. It is to be hoped that contemporary architects will find their own idiom.

Another goal of the plan is to preserve significant buildings of the past in what would become "conservation districts'; of the buildings we show, Mills, Matson, Southern Pacific, PG&E, the Bank of California, and Hunter-Dulin would be protected. Alaska Commercial has been lost, and Rincon Annex will soon be redeveloped with additional stories.

An architectural saunter downtown

Weekends are a good time for a leisurely, unobstructed look. Weekdays give you the vitality of the district in full commercial tilt (with more restaurants open).

Start at the Ferry Building and thread back and forth on north-south streets between California and Mission, ranging as far west as Kearny; for a broader sweep of lower Market, you can then take a bus down Market to Embarcadero parking or transit. Or create your own route.

Another option is a guided walk.

Every Thursday at noon. Heritage docents lead two 45-minute walks through the Financial District, starting from 130 Sutter Street and from Clay Street at Montgomery. Cost is $1; call (415) 441-3046.

Every Saturday at 1 and March 7 and 21 at noon, City Guides (San Francisco Public Library) take groups through the Lower Market area, starting at 65 Market Street. Free; call 558-3770 or 558-3981.

Taking a closer look at the plan

While applauded in many quarters, the plan has not won universal favor. …

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