New York Times

The Living Arts
Thursday, August 16, 2001

San Francisco Opens the Gate, and Modern Rushes In.
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 city’s famous livability.

"San Francisco was steeped in the image of itself as a Victorian city, " said Sidney Saitowitz, one of the city’s 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 country’s 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 militant zeal.

"It’s 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 who’s who, it didn’t 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 doesn’t need city approval, only that of the General Services Administration.

Mr. Saitowitz’s 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 museum’s 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?"…


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