“Contextual architecture” has been a hallowed goal for a generation now, and no wonder. Who can quibble with the idea that buildings should be good neighbors and defer to the past? Right?
But here’s the thing about theories: At some point you can judge the results, not just the intent. And even if you’re a fan of the contextual approach — which I am — it has been around long enough for us to see that looking backward isn’t enough. In an age where cities and suburbs are in a constant state of flux, it makes no sense to think that architecture alone is static — a two-dimensional backdrop to daily life.
All of which is a tangled reaction to a pair of modest but very different buildings in downtown San Francisco that, taken together, demonstrate that imitating the past isn’t nearly as effective as studying it for cues — and then pushing on ahead.
One is 720 Market St., an 11-story mid-block office building from 1987, with punched windows and gray walls of precast that is meant to evoke the early 20th century structures around it. The other is 85 Natoma St., a sleek steel box from 2001 that contains nine lofts and is a few yards off Second Street.
The former was born in the early years of the city’s Downtown Plan — an ambitious effort to keep new buildings from overwhelming what was left of old San Francisco. Modernism was out and historical veneers were in, and the approach at 720 Market was as literal as can be: The windows line up with the building’s neighbor on the west, while the pitched roof complements the mansard peak at 704 Market on the east.
By contrast, 85 Natoma could be a turbo-charged Jaguar parked between two Model T’s. On an alleyway site between a six-story brick office building and a one-story brick garage, 85 Natoma stacks two layers of lofts in glassy steel. The lofts are separated vertically by windowless streamlined metal that curves back on the upper two floors — giving the building a rounded silhouette as well as the nickname Steel Arc.
By rights the result should be disruptive. But in fact, 85 Natoma slides into place with surprising ease.
Why? Because architect Jim Jennings treats “context” as something you build on. The size of the structure serves as a transition between the stocky office building and the low garage, just as the spacious loft openings are reminiscent of the large windows carved into old factory buildings to let in light. The curving steel with its vertical seams is a departure, to be sure, but it lets you appreciate the right-angled order of what’s nearby.
The cool poise of 85 Natoma also accents the heft of the aged masonry around it. As different as these buildings look side by side, they complement each other.
“Architecture is always contextual, but it’s about respecting the scale and condition of its setting,” Jennings says. “The fetishizing of materials and details and styles is a mistake.”
That’s where 720 Market falls short. Now nearly 20 years old, it stands polite and pallid — full of manners, devoid of life.
I’m sure that passers-by found 720 Market to be reassuring when it opened, innocuous rather than intrusive; even today, I prefer it to other buildings of the era that piled on the granite and marble with cartoonlike nods to the past. The team of architect Kinya Tsuruta and Herrero Contractors set out to plug a hole with little fuss, and they did a good job.
Still, it’s a relic of an age when people were ready to fight anything that looked big and new, so developers and architects responded with cut-and-paste formulas.
Watching out for a city’s street life and skyline is good as far as it goes. But buildings designed to escape attention look awfully forlorn after a while.
Besides being architecturally stagnant, there’s another danger when “contextualism” becomes nothing more than an exercise in painting by numbers. What gets ignored is the fact that the context itself keeps changing.
A stroll back toward 85 Natoma shows what I mean — but instead of entering the alley, look into it from Second Street. From this perspective, the building no longer is a futuristic oddity among its neighbors; instead, the contemporary lines relate to the recent Foundry Square complex that fills a low spot on the skyline a block beyond.
That link didn’t exist in 2001. Now it does. The synergy connects two districts with unexpected grace, the sort of surprise that keeps the image of the city constantly in flux.
The point here isn’t that all buildings should be wrapped in steel, or that the modern look is the only way to go. In some locations, a literal approach makes sense. And buildings designed along traditional lines can still show imagination and flair.
But our world is one that’s more attuned to design than ever before. For evidence, just look around you, at everything from the newest iMac to Target’s $20 fluorescent rain boots.
That creativity is the context for the way we live now. It’s a context that today’s architecture shouldn’t ignore.