What's Up With S.F.'s Bad Architecture?

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The NEMA Apartments are not a favorite of KQED listener Dave Taylor. (Katie Brigham/KQED)

As part of our series, Boomtown, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. Our second one comes from Dave Taylor, who is not impressed by the new buildings going up in San Francisco. He asks:

Dave Taylor. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Dave Taylor.

"Why are the new buildings so ugly?"

The economic boom has brought a surge in construction projects to San Francisco -- particularly in the city's emerging Mid-Market neighborhood.

But not everyone is pleased with what they're seeing built.

“We are at the corner of what I consider the most atrocious buildings in the entire city," says Dave Taylor, who has lived in the city for more than 20 years. "This corridor of shame that I call Van Ness and Market is just a spectacular example of failed urban planning.”

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Taylor works as a media services technician -- "I play with toys that gather light and sound" -- and describes himself as "a very opinionated closet architect."

He did not hold back as we walked down Market Street from 11th to Eighth, pointing out the buildings that most offended him.

There’s 1455 Market: “A glorified parking structure with windows.”

Across the street: “We won’t even talk about Fox Plaza. We won’t even go there.”

And then, the brand-new NEMA apartments: “This gigantic black prison complex.”

Everyone has an opinion, so we asked someone who has looked at the city’s buildings for a while: San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King.

“I share the listener’s dismay,” he says. “A lot of what’s being built in S.F. right now really feels like product.”

He says many of the buildings going up have one particular consumer: The 29-year-old who just got the IPO and can afford a $4,500 rent payment or mortgage.

Market’s Come a Long Way

For a long time, this area was the dumpy end of Market Street that nobody cared about, King says.

Taylor calls 1455 Market St. a "glorified parking structure." (Katie Brigham/KQED)
Taylor calls 1455 Market St. a "glorified parking structure." (Katie Brigham/KQED)

Back in the '70s, it was essentially storage space for a lot of Financial District firms -- the place they parked their giant computers.

But now those dumpy buildings have flashy neighbors: tech companies and luxury apartments.

People are paying attention -- and griping. King says that part at least isn’t new.

“The whole point of being a San Franciscan is never to like what’s happening right now,” he says. "… to resent the fact that the city’s not exactly like it was when you moved there, and you discovered Utopia.”

Who’s in Charge?

But Dave Taylor says his issue isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about taste --  and pride.

“You have to feel a little despair when these monoliths go up, because these things are going to be there for 50 years,” he says. “It makes you wonder who’s in charge. Does anybody care anymore?”

There are a few answers to this question. First: Yes, someone is in charge. Actually, a lot of people.

“There are plans aplenty,” says King. “The list of who’s responsible is endless, and it gets a little different with each building.”

Permits and approvals can be costly and time-consuming. And behind every construction project is a complicated marriage of planners, neighborhood groups, developers and architects -- some who want to make their mark and others who just want to make a profit.

Taylor says these people don’t have San Francisco’s best interests at heart.

“When you see people walk by City Hall, they take pictures, they stop, they smile,” he says. “From here all the way to Powell, they look down, they don’t stop.”

A City’s Autobiography

“In the built environment, as one writer puts it, all our warts and our glories are there,” says Paul Groth, an architectural historian at UC Berkeley. “You can tell how we're treating our fellow humans in the built environment. It really is an autobiography.”

So, what does Groth think our current architecture says?

“Greed.”

Fox Plaza is another offender to Taylor in his so-called "corridor of shame." (Katie Brigham/KQED)
Fox Plaza is another offender to Taylor in his so-called corridor of shame. (Katie Brigham/KQED)

Big buildings, glass boxes, dark materials, pools and plazas on the inside -- all those elements are just today’s trend in luxury living, Groth says. You can see it the most in New York, Miami and San Francisco. It speaks deliberately to a kind of exclusivity.

And it’s that -- as well as the design -- that makes Dave Taylor want to get away from the corner of 11th and Market as soon as he can.

“I’ve got an artistic soul. That’s why people used to move here. It was a place, not a sanctuary, but a place where we could be and belong,” he says. “As an artist, beautiful things speak back to me.”

Unlike other art, say, a dance performance or a painting, you can’t avoid the buildings where you live or where you work. Taylor says that when he’s walking by Western Addition Victorians or the Transamerica Pyramid, buildings he loves, he feels like he’s having an experience -- like he’s part of the city’s story.

“It allows you to go deep places and start to think and start to grow,” he says. “This isn’t a commodity, this is a way of living, that you should be surrounded by beautiful things.”

There are new construction projects all over the city right now. And he’s hoping some of those buildings will be the kind that speak back to him.

Submit a question you'd like us to answer as part of our Boomtown series.