A Washington, DC architectural firm has opinions about architecture in San Francisco – and they seem ready to do something about it.

Last week leaked a draft of a seepage arrangement titled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” conceived by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that is aligning its locations with design trends over the past 50 to 60 years and more recent federal ones Architecture calls. humiliated and dehumanizing ”

The National Civic Art Society’s plan is for new federal buildings with columns and arches to revert to the old days of classical design so that new buildings look like affected Parthenon-Colosseum preparations a la Capitol Building or Supreme Court.

In the design, the San Francisco Federal Building was highlighted as one of the designs that are “not very aesthetically pleasing” and “have not reintegrated our national values”. In other words, the polarizing SoMa structure doesn’t look like 100 to 200 years old.

Despite the building’s many awards and critical acclaim, the steel structure remains a sore spot for many locals and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Morphosis architect Thom Mayne designed this 18-story puzzle valued at $ 144 million (about $ 183 million in modern currency). Today, the company attributes “a confluence of cultural, political and ethical choices” to the building’s design and says its intent was “to physically democratize the workplace”.

For example, the building places communal work areas in the corner and edge positions of the building, while private offices are near the center of the building – not a comfortable corner office for the boss.

Many of the elevators only stop every three floors, which sounds frustrating, but is intended to increase the number of places employees visit and encourage face-to-face interaction.

As the New York Times’s Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out in an enthusiastic review of 2007, Mayne did it clearly in accordance with the standards of the Federal General Services Administration’s Design Excellence program, a program established to “eliminate the cruel architecture that is routinely commissioned for government offices. ”

Before that, the style for federal buildings was completely listless. For example, check out the Phillip Burton Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue around 1964, a boring but necrotic look that new structures should avoid.

And the reforms worked. “Federal buildings were once wrapped in classic details, then faceless panels came; All bets are now closed, ”remarked Edward Feiner, former chief architect of the General Services Administration, in a 2001 interview in which he described the federal architecture as“ consistent in our inconsistency ”.

Feiner also praised the twin skyscrapers of the federal building in Oakland, which are covered with matching pyramids and connected by a navel in the air, as personal favorites. While it was considered bold when it opened in 1993, the building looks downright conservative today.

Obviously, the attempt to shake up old standards has worked. And the results in San Francisco proved popular decades later when the SoMa beast opened. The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic John King described the SF Federal Building as “both daunting and dazzling.”

After its completion he enthused: “No other high-rise defies the expectations of what a tower should look like so casually.”

Bloomberg’s James Russell said the SoMa-based giant “uses brutally brutal urban industrial energy [an] Environmental agenda. “

The American Institute of Architects gave it an Excellence In Architecture Award, praising its “sky gardens, tea rooms, large open staircases and flexible floor plans” for removing the rigidity of traditional office design.

There were also some naysayers. Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times gave the building a rare mixed rating at the time. He described the design as “feudalistic” and called it a “massive, aggressive tower”.

Thinking ahead is one thing, but why exactly does the building look like this? Part of the mandate was the aforementioned “democratization”, the advance towards a kind of high-rise building that not only broke off people’s assumptions about federal structures, but also emphasized how old-fashioned the old aesthetic was.

Take the large, cube-shaped terrace in the middle of the building (the “Sky Garden”, a privately owned public space) that is a distraction for many motorway drivers. Typically, architecture strives to connect large open spaces organically and seamlessly with the rest of the building. But not Mayne, who instead blew a large square hole right in the side. Why should we hide the parts of a building to make it more livable, the design seems to argue? Why should one be afraid of disturbing the uniformity?


And the building’s protruding atriums, lined up vertically, raise the same question. It would have been easy to make them less intrusive, but you should know they are there.

Beyond the iconoclasm, Mayne’s top priorities were the environment; The tower is narrow on one side and extremely wide on the other as it uses natural ventilation instead of air conditioning. The design also allows plenty of natural light to flood the interior spaces (to the detriment of some employees who have complained about the sunlight being overloaded). And the perforated metal sunscreens are designed to reduce the heat.

At the same time, the strength of the building is due to security concerns. King noted that things like “windowless concrete, where buildings face sidewalks” and “auto-repellent barriers,” which are unsightly and conflict with the environmentally friendly atmosphere, were forced into the equation of necessity.

The thing about architecture is that you have to live with it for a long time – in many cases your entire life. Sometimes this helps – the Pyramid of Transamerica was once called a blemish on the city’s face (Herb Caen loathed it), but now it’s hard to imagine San Francisco without it.

In other cases, the long term is a formula for the buyer’s remorse. On the tenth anniversary of the federal building’s opening, King wrote that in hindsight it didn’t live up to the hype. Oh.

Although he still hailed it as “aggressive,” it wasn’t a trendsetter and little use is made of the open space that was supposed to enliven the neighborhood.

But there’s nothing to say that the neoclassical style, like the Beaux-Arts courthouse across the street that appears to be favored by the nation’s leaders, would better accomplish these goals.

After the contract leaked, the American Institute of Architects said it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates,” arguing that staying in the past undermines not only the usefulness of architecture, but core values ​​such as “freedom of thought and expression.”

SF already has a lot of City Beautiful style architecture. And while these are wonderful sights, they have never magically made the Civic Center or other surrounding neighborhoods work better.

Correction: We first wrote that the federal government supported the order in question, which was wrong. The National Civic Art Society’s nonprofit group led the critique of modern architecture and the SF Federal Building. The piece has been corrected and updated. Curbed regrets the mistake.