"When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! This our father did for us.' " - John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
A few summers ago, the AIA San Francisco asked us to take on the “challenge” of answering what they described as an intractable problem: “How can civic leaders balance a desire for contemporary sustainable architecture and the historic character of the South of Market neighborhood?” The presentation would be to a joint public meeting of the Planning and Historic Preservation Commissions of San Francisco.
Our guess was that they were expecting case studies exemplifying how “new” buildings could be inserted within historic fabrics or methods to suggest how Commissioners could evaluate proposed projects. We did neither, and instead began our “investigation” of SoMa as we usually do with every project, walking much of the district, this time with planning staff, then driving and walking again with design questions to frame our perspective.
SoMa, the district south of Market Street, has a unique city grid: the blocks are large, about 835 feet by 570 feet. Over time, these blocks have been divided by either two latitudinal (southeast-northwest) alleys or three longitudinal (northeast-southwest) alleys. This provides the SoMa with a clear network of continuous streets in a gridded pattern and a finer grain network of neighborhood alleys that are internal to each block, interrupted as they intersect an arterial street. There are many nuances as well as history to this structure which we will not go into further for this entry. For our presentation, we used two examples of multi-family housing projects and their effects on the district. One project arranged parking internal to the site with the housing units on the edges of the site and above the parking; the other did just the reverse, arranging parking on the periphery of the site with the housing above to form an internal courtyard. While both schemes are successful “case studies,” when placed in SoMa, the courtyard scheme detracts from the life and vitality of the alleys of SoMa; the parking mound that put units facing the street and alley supported the SoMa urban structure.
We did not talk about what the buildings looked like. Doing this made the challenge intractable because it set up a false polarity of new v. old. As cities must evolve, we re-presented the challenge by deleting two words as in: How can civic leaders balance a desire for [contemporary] sustainable architecture and the [historic] character of the South of Market neighborhood? From the questions and resulting conversations, the Commissioners understood that it is not the image of a building that makes it historic, it is how every action extends and intensifies the relations that make a place unique.