Issue 484August 2009

Urban Field Notes: Six Haikus about SF's Renegade Buildings

Urbanist Article August 1, 2009

Contextual. Appropriate. Tasteful. Harmonious.


How much energy is spent making sure that new buildings "fit in"! Sometimes we're better off thanks to this design-by-committee. But what we lose is the surprise of the unexpected, the quirky stuff that makes a city special. I agree with Pablo Picasso: "Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing. Good taste is the enemy of creativity."

Luckily, some buildings have fallen between the cracks. Buildings that break the rules. They probably wouldn't even get proposed today. Their neighbors would be at the barricades. Planning staff would review and comment, and sponsors would back down.

These are the renegades, the iconoclasts. Here are a few I love.

- That great deco apartment house towering over its Pacific Heights neighbors, way over the height limit.
- How about a glass box right in the middle of historic Chinatown? A gem.
- All over downtown, funky shacks in parking lots, placeholders with personality.
- The SF Mint, looming like a mysterious fortress over the Market Street Safeway. Who would even propose a huge structure in mid-Market?
- Preservationists howled when City Landmark #178, the Women's Building, got muralized.
- On 18th Street, within a row of Victorians: suddenly it's the Bauhaus.

california at grant

1. California at Grant. Clean, modern structure / Facing hokey tourist scene / Honest, light and trim


18th near sanchez

2. 18th near Sanchez. Not like its neighbors / No frills here: refreshing lines / Best, it's for elders


washington at steiner

3. Washington at Steiner. Way over Pac Height / Red roof, white walls to the sky / Couldn't happen now


all over town

4. All over town. Modest little shack / But sweet if it kept you dry / On rainy day: roof


18th at valencia

5. 18th at Valencia. A city landmark / Full body tattoo shocking / But still a beauty


duboce at buchanan

6. Duboce at Buchanan. Above Safeway hill / What could go on inside here? / Some kind of worship?


Photo Credit: All photos by the author.

About the Authors: 

David Prowler is a development and planning consultant in San Francisco ( He was the Mayor's project manager for Mission Bay and the Ballpark. When he served on the Planning Commission he tried to keep his personal tastes out of his decisions.

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