San Francisco's Shell Building, built in 1929, was one of many structures discussed during writer John King's visit to Forum. Photo: John King

Last Friday, San Francisco Chronicle urban design writer John King visited Forum to discuss all things Bay Area design and architecture, as well as his new book, Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings. Anyone who heard the show (and if you didn’t you can listen to an archive of it here) can tell you it was chock full of questions for King.

So full in fact, that there were many questions that weren’t able to be addressed. But we asked King if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that didn’t make it to air and he obliged. Below are King’s answers to more of your design questions:

1. Do architects and cityscape thinkers ever document or think about how the light gets passed from one structure to another?

Rarely, but they should. As counterintuitive as it sounds, a tower with the right angles and cladding can reflect light down toward the sidewalks below. Apparently this is happening – in a good way — with a new steel-draped Frank Gehry apartment tower in Lower Manhattan.

2. Does John King know anything about the building near Oyster Point on the west side of 101 that has blue glass? I think it’s lovely — seems to echo the shape of a ship — but there is no sign and it appears to be empty.

That is part one of Centennial Towers, and the architect is Craig Hartman of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Hartman also designed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland and a high-rise that’s in Cityscapes, 101 2nd St. Given the fact that it indeed sits empty, I’m guessing the second (taller) phase won’t join your lone ship anytime soon.

3. My grandfather, a long-time construction worker, recently died. When my family and I were going through his things, we found articles on buildings that he had helped build. We found lots on the Wells Fargo building on lower Market Street that went up in the mid-60s. What do you think of the building?

It’s 44 Montgomery St. and it opened in 1967 as Wells Fargo’s world headquarters: 564 feet straight up, the height accented by tightly spaced straight metal fins. Honestly, I’ve always found the John Graham-designed tower out of place at the foot of Montgomery’s masonry canyon. But a modernist I respect is a fan of its clean confident presence, so I’m taking a fresh look.

4. Can you talk about the new move towards interim spaces popping up between buildings in the City? Is San Francisco leading this iterative method, or are we part of a larger trend across the country and world?

San Francisco indeed is a trend-setter when it comes to the transformation of odd-shaped intersections into plazas, as at 17th and Market streets in the Castro, and the concept of “Parklets” where two or three parking spaces are turned into seating areas and sidewalk extensions. Credit goes to an abundance of smart young designers eager to experiment at urban scale, such as Rebar Group and Jane Martin, and a city planning department open to new definitions of public space.

5. The old Sears building on Geary and Masonic seems like such an under utilized space — great mid-century design with built in parking, easy access by public transportation, and some of the best views in the city. I wish the Fischer collection could have been considered for this local — similar to how the LACMA moved into an old department store on Wilshire in LA. Come on people, time for creative thinking for some of SF’s vacant retail spaces.

I don’t know if you’ll call this creative but … that big empty box is slated to be filled in the next 18 months or so by none other than Target.

6. Can you comment on Trinity Plaza as they start Phase 2 of the project? Like so many of the tall buildings in the city, they make the pedestrian feel so small.

The replacement of Trinity Plaza and its 360 apartments at 8th and Market streets with Trinity Place –- which if built as planned would include 1,900 apartments –- pushes the limits of density as far as it probably can go in San Francisco. And the first tower on Mission Street indeed has a daunting scale. The theory is that all the people in all those apartments will bring positive activity to this part of town. If correct, then we’ll be enjoying the street scene too much to notice the slabs above us.

7. At the entry to Sydney Walton Square on Front Street there is a massive brick arch. My understanding is that it is a fragment from an old market warehouse that used to be at this site and was torn down.

You are right! It’s known as the Colombo Market Arch, and it’s a remnant of the produce district razed to make way in the early 1960s for what now is the Golden Gateway. The highlight of Golden Gateway, by the way, is this green bucolic park.

8. Can John King comment on the Congregation Beth Sholom in the Richmond district?

It was designed by Stanley Saitowitz, and the half-circle of concrete atop a zinc-clad base has been likened to everything from a cantaloupe to an upside-down igloo –- Saitowitz’ own analogy is an abstract menorah — and I think it’s great.

San Francisco's Castro Theatre
The Castro theatre is one of many buildings that make San Francisco's neighborhoods unique, according to author John King. Photo: CTG/SF/Flickr

9. Can Mr. King comment on any notable buildings outside the city center, in the districts, like the Sunset, Richmond, Castro, Bernal Heights…etc?

Some are in my book, such as St. Anne’s in the Sunset District or a John Galen Howard elementary school in Bernal Heights. The Castro has Timothy Pflueger’s exuberant Castro Theatre and, in a much different vein, a nice crisp 1950s branch library by Appleton and Wolfard. The Richmond has the aforementioned cantaloupe. But all these neighborhoods are quintessential San Francisco –- the collage of cosmopolitan parts, set against geography you’ll find nowhere else.

Forum Follow-Up: John King Answers More Bay Area Design Questions 11 May,2011Amanda Stupi


Amanda Stupi

Amanda Stupi is Forum’s engagement producer.

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