S.F. Architecture: A Changing City

by John King | San Francisco Chronicle

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Urban Design Critic John King's Opinionated Guide To The New Buildings Around Us

Buildings aren’t like movies, or other forms of art that we view at our discretion. They’re objects on the landscape to be encountered again and again, for better or worse.

With that in mind, here’s a curated dive into some of the reviews and riffs I’ve done as The Chronicle’s urban design critic. This first batch of 30 will be added to every month. And yes, I’ve changed my mind on some of these verdicts – but that’s a topic for another forum.

Pier 39

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Architecturally, this faux fishing village that debuted in 1978 is no match for the red-brick authenticity of Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery. But long after those two once-seductive attractions lost their luster, Pier 39 still attracts an estimated 10 million visitors a year. I stopped by in 2015 to try and figure out why -- and discovered that maybe, just maybe, this woodsy nook of shops and cafes and sea lions fits its bayside setting better than we think.

James R. Herman Cruise Terminal

John King / The Chronicle

Once, our Embarcadero was lined with finger piers. Ships from around the world were serviced by longshoremen hustling on and off. The lone. far-flung function now? A superscaled but subdued cruise terminal that opened in 2015. It's no icon, but that's OK: "San Francisco’s newest maritime structure shows how the city’s relationship to the working waterfront has changed — and what the concept of our working waterfront has come to mean."

North Beach Library

Bruce Damonte

Innocuous as it looks, this branch library had to endure a nasty campaign to prevent its construction (and closing off a block of Mason Street). Thank goodness the opponents failed, I wrote in 2014, because "when the public is inside this public building, the effect is magical. You can immerse yourself in books, then look up and see a cable car rolling toward you before it pivots toward Fisherman's Wharf."


Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

A perk of my job is taking strolls with people like Philip Choy, author of "The Architecture of San Francisco Chinatown" and a Chinatown native himself. "Growing up, our aspiration was to get out of here," he told me in 2009. "I was considered lucky by my friends because on our floor we had a bathroom." As for the flourishes that grace a thousand postcards, "You can imagine designers at the time thinking 'How do I make it Oriental'," mused the former architect. "Pop a few canopies on and voila! We've got Chinatown."

288 Pacific Ave.

John King / The Chronicle

One of our most satisfying recent buildings is this ultra-lux condo complex that cradles the historic Old Ship Saloon on the edge of Jackson Square and "looks thoroughly modern, but still feels like it belongs." It's also a byproduct of our overheated economy. The good news, urbanistically? "When our long boom tapers out — finally! — the architectural investment will remain."

Piers 1 ½, 3 and 5

John King / The Chronicle

If you've stopped by Hard Water for a bourbon flight or met friends after work at Coqueta -- or, like me, lingered on the hidden bayside walkway to watch king tides splash onto the path --you've also experienced an exercise in preservation where "the pilings beneath the piers were rebuilt one at a time, and a steel frame was slid within existing walls for seismic reasons." And here's what's best of all: It feels like nothing much changed.

Transamerica Pyramid

Dylan Entelis / The Chronicle

Sorry, Marc Benioff: The tower associated with San Francisco in popular imagination remains this 853-foot peak across from low-slung Jackson Square. Never mind that when it was proposed, people across the country deplored the idea of what the Washington Post called "a second-class world's fair Space Needle." In fact, "it is a strong architectural vision executed with simplicity and care," I wrote in 2009. "The Transamerica Pyramid is brash and slightly odd, just like the city it calls home."

200 California St.

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

My 2014 ode to a quirky relic of the postmodern era before its most distinctive feature -- a golden clock tower -- was lopped off: "No landmark in itself, 200 California's fate is troubling for what it shows about the cavalier treatment doled out to buildings that are yesterday's architectural news. Buildings that suffer the most often are the ones that most strongly reflect their time -- structures of cultural value, for better or worse."

San Francisco Mining Exchange

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Historic preservation takes a strange form with this fusion of a 19-story glass tower and a faux classical landmark from 1923 that sat empty for decades. The tower is set back far enough that you can imagine how the terra-cotta facade looked in the Jazz Age. Things aren't nearly as convincing inside, where the trading floor was reborn as an ornate hall. But in cities, trade-offs count as triumphs if you gain more than you lose.

100 Montgomery St.

Kurt Rogers / The Chronicle

Easy to miss now, this 25-story shoebox on end opened in 1955 as San Francisco's first high-rise since the Great Depression. A decade ago it received a loving restoration that included trading its cracked marble skin for shimmering crystallized glass, while the aluminum panels were buffed to crisp glory. The architects wanted to bring back the luster, and the result looks as sharp as a well-tailored suit.

Maiden Lane

Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Gone is the era when Union Square's Maiden Lane was celebrated by legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs as "an oasis with an irresistible sense of intimacy, cheerfulness and spontaneity." What I encountered on a 2016 visit is a pedestrian alley that could be anywhere — "or at least anywhere upscale enough to attract the most vaunted international retailers, those designer boutiques that travel in well-heeled packs."

Hotel Vitale

John King / The Chronicle

In a less-prominent location, this "post-hip boutique hotel" would just be another innocuous building that pays lip service to the past while serving $15 cocktails. But on the Embarcadero between Mission and Market streets, a stone's throw from the Ferry Building, "Hotel Vitale stands as such a grand opportunity lost ... a clumsy box wrapped in brown brick with vague hints of much better buildings nearby."

100 Block, Main Street

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Architectural tours don't include this block between Main, Howard, Spear and Mission streets, where eight nondescript buildings are laced by a mismatched maze of planner-dictated footpaths. Their loss! Because the closer you look at the details, from redone lobbies to empty storefronts, it's a crash course in how San Francisco's Financial District continues to evolve.


John King / The Chronicle

Best known for Chicago's Aqua -- an 82-story concrete slab that brings to mind an eroded cliff -- architect Jeanne Gang has a tower rising in San Francisco as well. When completed in 2020 it will be a 40-story stack of twisting white metal bays, a blunt corkscrew that should provide an exhilarating counterpart to all the nearby glass. That's why I felt the need to protest in 2015 when condo owners across the street tried to lop off 100 feet.

181 Fremont St.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

In terms of height, this 54-story, 802-foot tower plays second fiddle to nearby Salesforce Tower. From what I hear, though, many skyline-watchers prefer this one's brash and nimble ascension -- or as I wrote last year, "an architectural lightning rod suggested by the diagonal beams that culminate in a 50-foot spiked spire at one corner." Shame about the mangled plaza behind it, though.

Millennium Tower

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

"In weird yet undeniable ways, Millennium Tower has come to symbolize the hubris and fragility of today’s San Francisco," I wrote last year, and you all know why -- this 2009 entry in the city's ongoing stream of glass towers now is known around the world for a tilt that has thrown its mostly wealthy residents off-balance. Even if you can't pick the faceted shaft out of a structural line-up, you know the name -- and no doubt have snickered once or twice.

Salesforce Tower

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Maybe you've noticed it on the skyline? Certainly, more people ask me my opinion of San Francisco's tallest building than any other recent structure. The answer is complicated,- which is why I marked the 2018 opening with my review of "a complex bundle of contraditions ... a well-tailored behemoth that seems to hover more than soar."

140 New Montgomery St.

Sean Culligan / The Chronicle

Here's a case study in how the shifting city map can lift a building's stature. This 1925 gem was designed by then-unknown Timothy Pflueger, with J.R. Miller and Alexander Cantin. Striking from the start, it also was tucked south of Market Street on a block that most people ignored. Now, with SFMoMa nearby and this part of town humming, the craggy terra-cotta cliff is a (deservedly) popular favorite.

222 Second St.

Connor Radnovich / The Chronicle

Full confession: Since I wrote this 2016 review, my respect has deepened for how design architect Thomas Phifer's meticulous vision shines through in all the materials and details, elongated bottom to shingled black crown. That said, my verdict remains the same: "The newcomer serves as a cautionary tale showing what can happen when out-of-town developers and architects have their own vision of what a city like San Francisco should be."

South Park

Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle

San Franciscans of a certain age might remember South Park as a raffish, out-of-the-way oval, surrounded by small manufacturers, intrepid artists and low-income residents. Then it became ground zero for the dot-com boom. Then it was redone except for the curbs and a few trees -- but how heartening that the 2017 makeover genuinely seeks to be inclusive. You should stop by, despite the sight of venture capitalists scoping out the tech-saturated crowd.

333 Brannan St.

Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Yes, "it’s possible to add contemporary buildings to established settings in low-key but comfortable ways." That's what I found with three modest office buildings not far from South Park, all dating from 2016 and each one designed with close attention to its surroundings. There's also an emphasis on environmental sustainability that makes this trio, in terms of function as well as looks, "keyed to long-term durability rather than short-term flash."

Hotel Via

John King / The Chronicle

"For all the attention focused on flashy towers and big-name museums, it’s the cumulative success or failure of more modest buildings that matter most to our cities in terms of design." That's why in 2017 I sang the praises of this compact 15-story hotel that opened across from the Giants' ballpark -- it more than holds its own.

Mission Bay

John King / The Chronicle

The 2017 groundbreaking for the Warriors' Mission Bay arena offered an excuse for me to take stock of the young neighborhood rising from defunct rail yards. Too many buildings remain too sterile, an oddly hollow work in progress. The best new market-rate project is a coupled pair of 12-story concrete-and-glass slabs. That said ... the playground is humming and the storefronts are filling up. Stop by on a sunny weekend, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Moscone Convention Center

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Our fetish for cable cars and legacy bars aside, San Franciscans tends to forget the historic twists and turns of this city by the bay. That's why this 2017 piece includes the back story to the Moscone Convention Center, which began life as "a sunken compound on the south side of Howard Street, because opponents wanted it out of sight and out of mind as much as possible." Now that first phase is all but gone. Buildings evolve; so do shared urban values.

InterContinental San Francisco

John King / The Chronicle

A few years ago I was talking architectural guilty pleasures with a local designer. Another architect joined us. We brought him up to speed and he pontifcated on how no building preference merits an apology, all buildings have value, etc., etc. Then I told him mine -- this 32-story popsicle with billowing aqua curves. He burst out laughing despite himself and stared at me in dismay.

Bill Sorro Community

Mason Trinca / Special to The Chronicle

Anyone who encountered Brian Goggins' "Defenestration" remembers the oddity of furniture popping out from the exterior walls of a derelict building at Sixth and Howard streets -- an ad hoc installation that teetered above us for 17 years. Now the corner holds a nine-story stack of low-income apartments that is also, I wrote shortly after it opened, "the city’s most architecturally impressive housing complex of 2017."

San Francisco Federal Building

John King / The Chronicle

When the San Francisco Federal Building opened in 2007, the 18-story metal-draped slab attracted national attention. Locals either celebrated the swashbuckling bravado of the design or recoiled at the sight. One decade later I took stock of how it has fared -- and fallen short of the hype, especially in terms of the public spaces that get little use, inside and out.

Civic Center

CMG Landscape Architecture

Given all the social problems in the Civic Center area, where some blocks have the squalid feel of drug-infused shooting galleries, it's easy to be skeptical about the desire of San Francisco's Planning Department to redesign 15 acres of public space from City Hall to Market Street. In fact, such aspirations could pay dividends in terms of quality of life for all types of people. Here's the new conceptual plan and why I hope that it proceeds.

The Rockwell

Amy Osborne / Special to The Chronicle

There's a case to be made for facadism, where bits of an old building are preserved while a new structure goes up behind it. This one, though, inserts a colorful metal condo tower behind scraps of two nondescript commercial garages -- leaving me with the feeling in 2017 that "Rockwell’s juggling act can be judged a success only if you have a fetish for century-old masonry freshened with genuine care."

1645 Pacific St.

Brant Ward / The Chronicle

Developer Nick Podell says "I love ornamentation — something that moves a building beyond a box,” and I believe him. His 39-unit infill complex from 2015 resembles an overbaked architectural souffle hearkening back to early 20th century Paris. But if you're a style agnostic, as am I, here's what counts: "In an age when too many buildings look formulaic and thin, I’ll take heartfelt over humdrum any time."