New York Times
The Living Arts
Thursday, August 16, 2001
San Francisco Opens the Gate, and Modern
A city protective of its tradition confronts the new.
Architects Turn the Past Into Irreverent Prologue.
By Pilar Viladas
For San Franciscans, the prospect of change has all the
appeal of an earthquake. But like natural disasters, change
is inevitable. A flood of technology money in the last
decade or so added to runaway growth that threatened the
citys famous livability.
"San Francisco was steeped in the image of itself
as a Victorian city, " said Sidney Saitowitz, one
of the citys better-known designers of modernist
buildings. But the technology explosion, its culture of
risk-taking and the wealth it generated created a seemingly
unstoppable market for new architecture and design. Despite
tough city building guidelines, much of the new work,
from boutiques to civic architecture, is outspokenly modernist,
while it may be frowned upon by die-hard traditionalists,
it is nonetheless transforming this city into the countrys
epicenter of modernist design- and provoking soul-searching
in a community that prides itself on its distinct character.
"These buildings," Mr. Saitowitz said, "will
give people the opportunity to see that architecture can
be good without imitating the past."
That there is any avant-garde architecture at all
for Mr. (Ian) Schrager to admire in San Francisco is remarkable
to serious design enthusiasts. In an effort to preserve
the low-rise late- Victorian character that makes the
city so attractive to both residents and tourists, San
Franciscans have resisted contemporary architecture with
"Its a bloody battle," said Mr. Saitowitz
of being a modernist in a community that view any modification
of the cityscape with suspicion.
So if the list of architects at work here reads like an
international whos who, it didnt happen without
a struggle. A radical remodeling of a 1907 Willis Polk-
designed power substation into a Jewish Museum by Daniel
Libeskind with enormous angular shards of façade
jutting into the street and the remodeling of the Beau-Arts
main library building into a new home for the Asian Art
Museum got speedy approval from the planning commission.
But the copper-mesh-skinned building for the M.II. de
Yong Museum, with a 160 foot tower in the heart of Golden
Gate Park, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de
Meuron, raised a ruckus before it got the green light,
and a design for a new Prada store off Union Square, by
the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, has raised eye brows
at the commission for its 12,000 circles of varying dimensions
that puncture its nine story stainless steel façade.
(The commission has yet to rule.)
An even more radical design for a federal building by
Thom Mayne, a Los Angeles architect, with a futuristic
tower near the predominantly Beaux-Arts Civic Center,
is expected to go into the building phase next year. It
might never have got this far except that a federally
financed building doesnt need city approval, only
that of the General Services Administration.
Mr. Saitowitzs striking Yerba Buena Lofts project,
nearing completion in the trendy South of Market area,
was likened to Soviet housing by the planning commission
staff, he said. But he believes that as the new designs
reaches critical mass over the next few years, public
opinion will come around.
Indeed, as the first of this wave, the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art was instrumental in changing public attitudes
toward modern architecture when it opened its new home,
designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, in 1995.
"Its success did not go unnoticed by other institutions
in this city," said David Ross, the museums
director since 1998. "SFMOMA has more members than
the Museum of Modern Art, in a city with one-fifth the
population of New York. What does that say about an appetite
for the New?"