Topography, Typology, and Tension: A Passing Glance at the Urban Fabric of San Francisco

FRIDAY, 3 FEBRUARY 2017–My uncle and I are closing out our last night in the City By The Bay at a wine bar on Chestnut Street in the heart of the Marina District. As I occupy the corner seat of the bar, the amber wave of my Anchor Steam Beer and the metallic hue of my Orlando City Soccer Club jersey contrast the dark wines and darker coats of many patrons, though my we share a common trait with the locals of enjoying good drinks and good conversation. I had never been to San Francisco and he had only been for work conferences, so exploring the city’s winding streets and variety of sights was a new experience for both of us. Stopping by this tucked-away cluster of restaurants, bars, and shopping hadn’t been on our to-do list for more than a couple hours, though its local charm and alternate character from more tourist-oriented nodes made it a remarkable find. My uncle says to me, “I could certainly see myself living in the Marina District.” I was hoping my new home-to-be could provide a similar aura.

The trip west came about out of happenstance. January was bound to be a hectic month highlighted by closing things out with my former employer, reaching out to find a new opportunity in the area, arranging and engaging in conversations with those potential employers, and ultimately accepting a job offer with an architecture firm in Madison. Everything came together rather smoothly, all things told. Finding an apartment in this new city was a similarly quick and affirming process, and my schedule for making the transition left a glimpse of free time that a few frequent flyer miles could find a way to fill. Getting away to San Francisco rose to the top of the list. I called my uncle in San Bernardino County and asked if he’d like to join me. Being a frequent traveler himself, he obliged without the slightest show of resistance.

The scenes from the windows of the plane shortly before landing and from the BART train on its way from San Francisco International Airport to downtown reveal the primary relationship in the planning of the Bay Area between man and nature. Stucco homes climbing up craggy hilltops and reflecting the setting sunlight reminded me of similar train rides into downtown Athens, further enhanced by San Francisco’s Mediterranean climate. Approaching downtown, the train goes strictly subterranean and the views go away. I get off at Montgomery Street and ascend the staircase into the heart of a skittish crowd darting from skyscraper to skyscraper. Utterly disoriented, I circle the block with the tide of pedestrians until spotting the street I’m looking for and make my way to the hotel. I venture out, my face lit by the glow of Google Maps, until arriving at 21st Amendment Brewery where I hunker down until the one-two punch of the time change and a 9.0% ABV amber ale suggest calling it an early night.

If you want to find something interesting in San Francisco, start walking uphill or downhill. Full of energy at an exceedingly- but not obscenely-early hour, I thought I’d traverse from the hotel to Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill, which looms over the Financial District like a concrete gearshaft. I pop into a delightful Italian restaurant for breakfast and venture further into the still dense but much more residential portion of downtown. Coupling the elegant Victorian style of many homes in this area with the precipitous slopes of the streets creates a whimsical atmosphere, the collection of design and aesthetics resembling the catalogue of a classical composer. The Painted Ladies might be The Marriage of Figaro, but distinct local character echoes from each facade. I reach the top of Telegraph Hill and spot the twists of Lombard Street on a nearby hill. My calf muscles got their day’s work in.

Lombard Street, looking east toward Coit Tower.

I meet my uncle back at the hotel, as he had flown into Oakland that morning. We head down 3rd Street past SFMOMA to AT&T Park along the bay, where we take ballpark tour (we were the only native English speakers on the tour other than the guide). After lunch, we catch an Uber from South Beach to the California Academy of Sciences in the heart of Golden Gate Park. One could go to Golden Gate Park every day for a year and not have the same experience twice. The museum and subsequent walk to the beach reveal a natural haven (bison grazing and all) encapsulated by the expanse of the city with a climax of the setting sun dipping into the Pacific Ocean.

We got our three days’ worth in the city, that’s for sure. We sailed to Alcatraz Island and traversed the Golden Gate Bridge (to the first support anyway), got rained on by a passing storm cloud, and waved to the sea lions basking just off Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf. We took the BART up to Berkeley and hung out in the local brewery among the college crowd, and casually sampled Thai fusion while the father at the adjacent table beckoned his two young children to blow kisses to their mother via FaceTime. We got turned around and ended up in neighborhoods we maybe shouldn’t have been in, but figured that a local could have guided us to the secret gems tucked away in the sprawling grid as it traverses the topography. We made each other laugh, we made each other think, we people-watched, we discussed careers and family, and tried to keep track of how many city blocks had passed between Starbucks locations. It was exactly the kind of break I needed before the month of transition that lay before me.

But what is there to dissect about the urban fabric of this city, other than that we all want to leave our hearts there?

Southern pier of Golden Gate Bridge.

If I was to live in San Francisco, I could probably give a different conclusion about the city’s urban fabric with every passing month. The spur-of-the-moment kinds of encounters that can happen in a city that large and diverse (even in a city as large and diverse as Madison) which can profoundly influence one’s worldview do not happen overnight, and I recognize that my four-night stay in the Bay Area was only beginning to dig under the surface of what is certainly a multi-faceted collection of spaces and individuals. In the time I did have, I found that San Francisco is a city filled with tension and juxtapositions in design and community that come from years of developing unique relationships. One obvious tension is man versus nature. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906 and ravaged by another one in 1989, and reports indicate that the region is overdue for the next big one. It’s a calculated risk to live here—calculated in the structural integrity of the buildings being constructed to survive an earthquake, calculated in education of the public regarding what to do during this natural phenomenon, calculated in completing the business required to keep the startup growing and the rent paid.

In addition to the destructive force of nature is the very organized effort to preserve natural habitats as much as possible. While Golden Gate Park and Muir Woods (my uncle and I unfortunately didn’t make it to the latter) are clear examples of this effort, the one I found most profound as to how it affects the city’s urban fabric was that of Crissy Field, the former airfield and expansive park at the southern base of the Golden Gate Bridge. After touring Alcatraz (which has a fascinating relationship with nature in its own right) and stopping for lunch at Pier 39, I decided to embark on the four-mile walk from Fisherman’s Wharf to the famous bridge off in the distance. This stretch led me past several tourist traps at first such as Ghirardelli Square, but eventually to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and up a secluded street which gave way to the dirt pathways of Fort Mason, now a meandering city park upon a hillside. I climbed a hill and came back down to a completely different city. Locals were enjoying the sunshine with their dogs and significant others free from the throngs of tourists, with the aforementioned Marina District nestled just southwest of the park amidst expansive but strictly gridded residential neighborhoods. The Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture sits in the valley, complete with signage promoting the evening’s improv night. Marina Boulevard serves as the promenade separating residential development from a quiet harbor, and walking west reveals not only the looming Golden Gate but a great effort to preserve the wetland of the bay while taking in the picturesque landscape away from the worries of the big city. This park continues up the side of a bluff and reaches the base of the pedestrian pathway across the bridge, though the gentle slope provides relief from the highway above. It was entrancing, truly a relief from the tension of expectation and commercialism that comes with working to stand out in a bustling metropolis. Conscientious conservation impacts the fabric of San Francisco in a grandiose way, from the massive sizes of parks like Crissy Field, Golden Gate Park, For Mason, and Muir Woods to the unique missions, messages, and vistas offered in each. Urban and social fabric aren’t always supported in buildings.

Intersection of topography, technology, hydrology, and meteorology at Crissy Field.

In this example, Fort Mason Park and Crissy Field become release valves from another very noticeable tension in San Francisco between the permanent resident and the transient tourist. Locals and non-locals have their respective areas in which to live and interact—the Marina District and Fisherman’s Wharf for example, the two neighborhoods separated by the park I walked through. These pockets become differentiated not only by the individuals inhabiting them but further by the physical approaches to them. Fisherman’s Wharf is a quick drive along the Embarcadero, not even a mile from the pier where ferries to Alcatraz depart and arrive. Any bus can traverse this lane and circle back to an equally-accessible hotel from which visitors can be funneled to their next destination. On the other hand, the Marina District is tucked deep within the infrastructure of the north side of downtown. A drive to this pocket takes several twists and turns up and down hills as those grand Victorian homes stand guard, each turn revealing some additional pocket of commercial development with its own unique mark on the community as a whole. If you’re in a new city and want to find where the locals go, remember that the journey will be as worthwhile an experience as the destination.

Marina District
Path from Union Square to Marina District (aerial images from Bing Maps).

A third manifestation of tension arises out of the built form of the city. As with any metropolis of any importance over the course of human history, location is everything. The natural location of San Francisco provides a state of equilibrium—a bay that is suitable for commerce while also being protected, and a picturesque landscape of rolling hills that is simultaneously tameable and romantic in a way that only the Californian landscape can evoke. Still, even the city with as organic an urban fabric as San Francisco’s assumes the unmitigated truth that humanity has conquered nature. An intricate network of skyscrapers and winding roads creates vistas framing great manmade masterpieces darting between the hillsides to which the tranquility of the natural landscape takes a supporting role. The pace of the Financial District is a marvel in itself, and there was just as much sightseeing to take in amidst the network of businesses, specialty shops, eateries, bars, and spin classes as there is in the shores of Crissy Field. Thus, the tension that becomes clear when contrasting the downtown with a tucked-away neighborhood like the Marina District is in the use of space. The city block, in its pre-established dimensions, becomes encased with advertisements for passersby to come inside a predesigned decorated volume that, while organized in a rational manner, conveniently eliminates any organic sense of wander and discovery. The famous Ferry Building along the Embarcadero becomes an example of how the same urban space takes on a different connotation in this context; while it has the same organization and collection of businesses as Chestnut Street in the Marina District, it becomes packaged into a repurposed building that has a clear beginning and a clear end. The Ferry Building embodies iconography, the Marina District embodies community—great cities (and great experiences in great cities) provide both of these elements for its permanent and temporary residents.

ATT Park
Path from Union Square through South Beach to AT&T Park (aerial images from Bing Maps).

One part of downtown that begins to intermingle these two typologies is in the adaptave-reuse haven of South Beach. Once a bundle of warehouses and industry, the area south of the central Financial District has taken on a renaissance of sorts through the arrival of the San Francisco Giants to the bayfront and the repurposing of these large, open spaces into a textbook setting for the live-work-play lifestyle. These expansive floors provide carte blanche for the designer, entrepreneur, or developer to create unique spaces or advertise the notion of unlimited possibility, and San Francisco has become an epicenter (no pun intended) of this typology to the point that it can be interpreted for its value to the city’s urban fabric as a whole. Large open windows expose massive interior volumes broadcasting original structure bathed in an array of bright colors starkly contrasting the aged brick facades. The wide streets outside are bathed in a futuristic glow, mimicking the din of phones upon those passing through. I felt that South Beach lacked the facets of community and diversity in design that the Marina District and the Financial District embody, instead building upon the same tenets of utility and function that its buildings were built with in the first place. While the desire to live in cities and have the convenience of living, working, and playing in the same urban jumble has a definite appeal, we must not confuse this allure with requiring all three of these elements to take on the same identity as they are designed and realized. An environment like this can cultivate the notion that we must always be busy with something, always staring at a screen. The sustainable practices of reusing existing structures and re-igniting the built and social fabrics of a city through reinvention of its social and economic core are positive traits that 21st-century cities should bring out, but the future must extend beyond the surface of a fancy facade and empty hyperbole. As designers and active citizens desiring this unique sense of place and belonging, this is very much within our control.

Above all, the single most fascinating aspect of my time in San Francisco is not rating a single experience over another but appreciating the ability to have such a wide realm of experiences in a short amount of time. As a city, San Francisco has developed a philosophy of allowing for release from tension, both through natural and built form. An intricate city grid that responds to the natural challenges of developing a modern city in the Bay Area creates several distinct neighborhoods and districts around the city whose journey and discovery become just as intrinsic to the city experience as spending time in them. The architecture subsequently responds to and strengthens these identities in a way that is cutting-edge as far as the development of the adaptive reuse/live-work-play typology against a backdrop of iconic and timeless works of craft and ingenuity. Occupying these spaces is a very diverse populace of permanent residents and tourists, giving the city another distinct layer of social fabric and issues that require responding. A place like this is not simply created; it evolves over decades, responding to the needs and intentions of its locals and visitors through conscientious design gestures with deep meaning to those utilizing it.

Beautiful wear and tear on Alcatraz Island.

This bit of traveling came together quickly and unexpectedly, but was a great chance to unwind in the great presence of nature and to re-focus in the throngs of a bustling metropolis.  Understanding how these design problems are solved, even on the surface of a short visit to a place like this, is a valuable exercise, no matter what medium the interpreter chooses to use to respond. Every city has tensions and requires unique thinkers to craft responses with care and meaning, and creating a true sense of place requires the presence of a true sense of community.

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