San Francisco’s most polarizing buildings

Love ’em or loathe ’em, these eye-catching structures won’t be ignored

Thom Mayne’s jarring yet alluring Federal Building turns 10 this week. The behemoth at Seventh and Mission—an 18-story structure, with a curtain of perforated steel punctuated by a large square cut-out framing a privately owned public park—divides many. Architecture geeks (including yours truly) admire it. Others loathe it.

San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King penned an excellent piece this week about the “flawed but fascinating” building’s anniversary.

In part, the critic of note writes:

But when we view the complex in hindsight, it didn’t transform the local architectural scene. It’s a flash of isolated drama. Look no further than the three residential slabs that have been built on the block since then, each a box with no higher aspiration than to satisfy the developer’s bottom line.

As for the social agenda—to create a neighborhood haven—the plaza and its corner cafe have come up short on all fronts.

While the Federal Building itself cannot be blamed for the “derelicts and the dispossessed” around the blighted area, the building hasn’t proven to be the people-filled plaza it once promised. The vast and arid park section of the space, which was intended to be a place for markets, concerts, and mingling, failed on all three fronts.

Photo by Ian Collins

That being said, this is a government building, a type of structure best served with heavy helpings of daring and dismissive architectural bravado. After all, who wants their federal buildings to be cozy, welcoming, or warm?

And with that, here are a few of San Francisco’s other love it/hate it buildings. Many of them are of the contemporary/brutalist variety, but also there are a few stalwarts in here for good measure.

Photo by Wally Gobetz

San Francisco Marriott Marquis

One of eight Marriott International hotels in the city, this is perhaps the most (in)famous. Lovingly nicknamed “the Jukebox” by locals, most notably columnist Herb Caen, who once complained that reflections from the hotel’s windows blinded him inside his office at the nearby Chronicle building. Today we couldn’t imagine the neighborhood without it.

Photo by Scott Schiller

One Rincon Hill

Referred to in vulgar parlance as the city’s USB memory stick or air purifier, One Rincon Hill set the trend for the current batch of high-rises cropping atop Rincon Hill. Completed in 2008, with a second tower finished in 2014, it was designed by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz & Associates.

Photo by Russell Mondy
Photo by Russell Mondy

Intercontinental Hotel

Noted by locals for being the hue of Otter Pop’s Louie Blue, this SoMa hotel (President Barack Obama’s preferred place to stay while in town), designed by Patri Merker Architects and Hornberger + Worstell, provides clean lines and a sense of harmony.

Photo by Allan Ferguson
Photo by Allan Ferguson

8 Octavia

While it’s impossible to think anyone would dismiss this critical piece of work, a few Curbed SF commenters have been known to compare Stanley Saitowitz’s luxury condo complex to a “Hayes Valley prison.” However, in the short amount of time it’s been at Octavia and Market, it’s provided plenty of positive contrast to the neighborhood’s overabundance of Victorian architecture. Lovely.

Photo by Sonny Abesamis
Photo by Don Shall

Hyatt Regency

King described this circa-1973 hotel as a “temple of hermetic urbanism,” noting that by 2016 it had become “dated.” However, he went on to praise it as “still visually dazzling, in a futuristic sort of way.” Indeed. Due to its concrete polish and heaps of right angles, it’s also a favorite for local photographers.

Photo by Travis Wise
Photo by Scott Mattoon
Photo by Michael Fraley

Glen Park BART station

A brutalist gem or just brutal? The Glen Park BART station is one of San Francisco’s few buildings that use the 1960s European architecture. It’s brooding, its rough, it’s filled with grandeur care of concrete and polished stone. “BART has forty-three stations,” wrote John King in Cityscapes, San Francisco and Its Buildings. “[T]his surely is the best.”

Photo by Daniel Hoherd

Hilton San Francisco Chinatown

Located in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, this circa-1971 hotel, created in the brutalist style, reopened in 2006 after a major renovation.

San Francisco Armory

It’s historic. It’s large. It’s unseemly. From the cold, muddy exterior to its imposing size in the heart of the Mission District, this building is adored by many for sentimental reasons yet passionately side-eyed by those who would prefer a more modern look.

Photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA
Photo by Jeremy Brooks

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Take your pick: Both the original Mario Botta building and the 2016 Snøhetta-designed expansion have their admirers and detractors. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic Olly Wainwright famously derided the latter as “a gigantic meringue with a hint of Ikea,” while Blair Kamin, critic for the Chicago Tribune, called the Botta design “surprisingly standoffish” and “more an intimidating fortress than an enticing people’s palace.”

But years later, as King notes, the Botta design has become an architectural anchor for the neighborhood. And the new expansion has proved to be a resounding success for the museum.

Salesforce Tower

Winning the moniker of tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, this 1,070-foot structure, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, furrows brows with its unabashed size and prominence from almost any spot in San Francisco.