Issue 490

Urban Field Notes: Five Chats about Architecture Overheard on the Street

Urbanist Article

All over the city old and new buildings sit side by side, each speaking the language of its native cultural moment: pre-war or mid-century or post-modern. As they pass the time, bearing witness to the eddy of human activity percolating around them, I like to imagine these buildings are talking to one another.

The old-timers, in their comically archaic jargon, chide the shallow swagger of the youngsters, who respond in the hyperconfident hipsterisms of their respective cliques. The middle-aged buildings remain mostly silent. Too busy working, I suppose. The conversations are sometimes fluent and witty, sometimes incoherent and jarring. But it's the chatter that matters, the noise as layers of history collide and intersect.

We argue a lot about how well we can orchestrate this architectural mash-up: how can we banish incongruity, how can we project our idealized civic identity, how much of the old should be preserved and how much of the new should break with or play deference to tradition. These debates are about capitalism and functionality as much they are about aesthetics and subjective experience, but they seem endless.

I would rather listen to the buildings themselves. I am especially entertained by how often, for example, two buildings built a century apart but for the same purpose will speak in similar tones: with bravado or earnestness or charm. For me these architectural moments, whether random or planned, define the character and texture of the city.

icons of the city

1. Icons of the city. It's been home to Abe Ruef, the Kingston Trio, and the trend-setting Caesar's restaurant, but the 1907 Sentinel Building, despite its colorful exterior and its colorful past, is out-postured by the heftier Transamerica Building. Now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, it continues to stand watch in North Beach, where high finance still battles Bohemia for the city's identity.


two cathedrals

2. Two cathedrals. As a destination for those who worship at the altar of high art, the Jewish Museum extension, completed in 2008, wears its eccentricity proudly. It leans across this South of Market plaza and whispers mischievously at the backside of its 19th century neighbor, the stalwart St. Patrick church, an institution that knows a thing or two about architecture and ritual.


for the people

3. For the people. Government architecture usually comes in two varieties: faceless and functional, or dressed to impress. The Federal Building, 2007, is aggressively trying to be both. And though it has little in common stylistically with its Beaux Arts companion across Seventh Street, the 1905 U.S. Court of Appeals, neither building is coy about its mission: something terribly complicated is going on inside.


big business

4. Big business. At 285 feet, Willis Polk's Hobart Building defined the upper edge of the skyline when it was built in 1914. It still holds its own against a later mid-century version of corporate machismo, the glass-walled giant next door at 44 Montgomery. Both office towers succeed in making the pedestrian feel somewhat irrelevant and very, very small.


home sweet home

5. Home sweet home. Before the area was bulldozed to make way for Yerba Buena Gardens in the 1960s, this pre-quake office building on 3rd Street was surrounded by single-room-occupancy hotels, the affordable housing of their day. Today it shares the street with a chorus of higher-class acquaintances: the Argent (fancy hotel), the Paramount (fancy apartments) and the St. Regis (fancy hotel with fancy apartments).



Photo Credit: All photos by the author.


Ruth Keffer is a freelance curator and design writer, and editor of SPUR's Urban Field Notes.