Walking to a late lunch this week, I happened to notice 8 Mission, a newish building, apparently designed by Heller Manus Architects, that most people probably wouldn’t give a second glance. As many times as I had walked or driven by, it was one block that almost dared to be architecturally invisible. What struck me this time was how many notes this large building was hitting in terms of being a great neighbor and set piece to the real stars of the show, the facing San Francisco Bay waterfront, and the historic Ferry Building nearby. The selection of red brick exterior walls make reference to San Francisco’s industrial waterfront buildings, the rotunda articulation of the building corner creates a nice anchor to the main intersection it faces, there’s a clean articulation of the top floor with a change of material to sand-colored stucco, and projecting bronze metal bay windows hearken to San Francisco’s famous Victorian architecture roots while adding further richness to the materials palette. In spite of the many references to regional architecture styles, the project still manages to be contemporary rather than what could have been a kitschy revival in less skillful hands. And in spite of the obvious pandemic-era retail distress happening at the ground floor (with most of the businesses closed) a real attempt was made to provide a friendly and inviting pedestrian experience with generous amounts of retail frontage facing the major streets.
It takes a great deal of maturity and finesse for architects to hold back their silly egos and, instead, do their part to each create an earnest dialog with the city their building is in. The opposite extreme is what happens when a series of different star architects are given free reign do their thing in close proximity to one another, often creating an accidental theme park motif. And most disastrous of all is the most common situation: owners hiring hacky, untalented architects or a drafting service as a commodity purchase. If buildings were tea leaves, one can deduce that American society, in large part, prioritizes high profit over high culture and that’s too bad.
Here’s to the architects in the world who sometimes have the good sense to keep their egos in check, when appropriate and prioritize urban dialog over urban monologue. Buildings front streets and together they create a neighborhood’s living room. Put enough of these streets together and you have a city, like San Francisco on a sunny crisp afternoon, in which a person can be proud to live and prosper. What’s better than that?