The Future Is Global

With an influx of starchitects working on bold, thoughtful, and sometimes even quiet designs, San Francisco is gradually earning its place on the architecture map.

San Francisco is a world-class city with a skyline whose biggest standout is still a funky pyramid that went up in 1972. Star architects have come and gone and, most notably, left a string of great museums, among them the tilting blue-steel gem of Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, Renzo Piano’s playful green-domed California Academy of Sciences, and Snøhetta’s pleated-iceberg expansion for SFMOMA. But with the new Transbay district springing up and an urban-scale overhaul at the S.F. Shipyard under way, our city’s silhouette is finally on the verge of a tipping point: There’s enough vertical momentum to see a 21st-century skyline starting to take shape, and the list of boldface names is growing.

Not only is Piano back with a design for a glass tower, but Chicago’s Jeanne Gang is taking her first turn in S.F. with what’s got to be this city’s least conventional skyscraper. The pipeline is packed with talent, too. Bjarke Ingels’s name is attached to a soon-to-be-proposed tower near Caltrain, and Norman Foster’s jewel-like condo and hotel tower in SoMa broke ground in December. But even as San Francisco polishes its architectural crown, it’s still a city that knows how to make landscapes that lure the world to its shores. Look no further than James Corner’s new Presidio Parklands and David Adjaye’s reverence for the city’s industrial past at the Shipyard. While we’re not even close to building our way up to being the next London or Dubai—not that we’d want to—we are well on our way to becoming a more interesting version of ourselves.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop
555 Howard
Renzo Piano’s glassy hotel and condo tower at 555 Howard isn’t the tallest building proposed for Howard Street in SoMa, not by a long shot. At a relatively modest 405 feet, it’ll be dwarfed by a proposed 800-foot hotel and condo tower next door, designed by Salesforce Tower architects Pelli Clarke Pelli. But you don’t win over folks in this town by being bigger; you win by creating enlightened public spaces. Which is why Renzo Piano Building Workshop sold developer Pacific Eagle on a truly great idea: opening the building’s glass-walled, climate-protected roof garden to the public for free. “It creates a new destination, so the building really becomes a part of people’s lives,” says partner Elisabetta Trezzani.

Studio Gang
Folsom Bay Tower

Traditionalists and contemporary architecture buffs may not agree on a lot, but they can agree on this: Jeanne Gang’s spiraling condo tower is an eye-catcher. It takes something San Francisco has in spades—the bay window—and gives it a strong twist. The bays spiral around the center of the tower as it rises, capturing views and light that a straight-and-narrow building would not. Think of it as the local answer to Gang’s famed 2010 Aqua Tower in Chicago, whose topographical exterior features balconies that curve in ways that give even mid-rise apartments landmark views. At 400 feet, Gang’s Bay Tower will be less than half the height of Aqua. But Chicago can keep its height—we’ll take the view from here any day.

James Corner Field Operations
The Presidio Tunnel Tops

As the landscape architect James Corner points out, the Presidio was never meant to be a park. “It was designed as a military base, so many of its parts are disconnected,” he says. Corner has some experience creating holistic parks in odd places—his design for New York’s High Line repurposed an elevated rail line into an urban catwalk overlooking 23 Manhattan blocks. He’s making his mark here with a 14-acre green oasis that sits on top of the new Presidio Parkway tunnels and seamlessly connects the Presidio with Crissy Field. Set to be completed in 2019, the park will feature a few High Line–like elements, such as oversize sculptural seating and places to picnic or graze visiting food stands. But unlike the High Line—“which is so intensely designed, a factor of it being a very narrow structure”—Corner says he wants to make the design disappear at the Tunnel Tops. “What exists is so beautiful and so awesome,” he says. “We are trying to say, ‘Don’t look at me; look at everything around me.’”

Adjaye Associates
San Francisco Shipyard Master Plan

Between the wharves to the north and the shipyards to the south, San Francisco grew up with a working waterfront. As those industries declined after World War II, the northern piers were reborn as pedestrian and tourist destinations. But the southern waterfront got left in the dust. “The navy yard, by being a military installation, has been removed from the public psyche,” architect David Adjaye says of the San Francisco Naval Shipyard. Which means our postcards are leaving out a big chunk of the bay: “That southern view across the water is a great asset for the city,” Adjaye says. As the architects for phase two of the S.F. Shipyard’s master plan, Adjaye’s firm is coming up with the design framework that will help transform 420 acres of decrepit military buildings, parking lots, and existing artist studios into a revitalized waterfront district with about 3,500 housing units, offices, new artist studios, and retail, all woven together with parks and open spaces. A big part of Adjaye’s MO is keeping as much of the existing industrial fabric intact as possible. “You up-cycle, recycle the city,” Adjaye says. “You don’t just tear it down and start again—you build upon it.”