Publication date: January 3, 2007
By John Ritter
Aesthetic and practical concerns spur the city
to consider a project with a pair of 1,200-ft. towers
SAN FRANCISCO -- This city's skyline, with its distinctive Transamerica Pyramid and pastel-colored buildings, juts out on a peninsula like a surfer hanging 10. From above the Golden Gate Bridge, sunset views can be postcard spectacular.
But a growing number of city officials and planners believe the skyline's form, a product of decades-old height restrictions, needs a shot of adrenaline.
"What you're struck by is how flat our skyline is," says Dean Macris, the city's planning director. "So we think it could be visibly enhanced if we had some peaking."
By that, Macris means height, and more height is clearly on the horizon. Last month, developers submitted a proposal to build four connected towers, two of which would be 1,200 feet tall. Only two other buildings in the USA are taller: New York City's Empire State Building and Chicago's Sears Tower.
The shorter towers in the plan, at 900 feet, would be taller than any other building in the city, including the Pyramid and Bank of America Center.
Tall seems to be in vogue as cities try to make bold architectural statements and create density in tight spaces. Boston, an old city whose tallest building is 792 feet, is considering a 1,000-foot tower that would dominate its skyline.
The 1,362-foot Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York would surpass the Empire State Building. The Trump tower in Chicago, now under construction, would be shorter than the Sears Tower, currently the USA's tallest skyscraper.
Work is expected to begin this year on Chicago Spire on the Lake Michigan shore, which at 2,000 feet would be the new height king.
Residential space needed
In San Francisco, with its chronic housing shortage, more height downtown is seen as a way to add badly needed residential units. The four towers, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, would be built in the booming South of Market area across from a proposed $1billion transit center, which itself would have a nearly 900-foot tower above a train station.
The eminent Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who designed the 150-story Chicago Spire, is competing in an international competition for the transit-tower design. Piano, whose work includes the Pompidou Center in Paris and Atlanta's High Museum expansion, is designing the California Academy of Sciences' new home here in Golden Gate Park. He also designed Shard London Bridge, which when completed will be Britain's tallest structure.
Piano's four-towers plan first will undergo environmental review, then face at least two years of design review.
"If the wind is at our back the whole way, which it won't be, we'll be fortunate to start building in 2010," says developer Mark Solit. The proposal submitted Dec. 21 is more of a concept than a floor plan, he says. The buildings will contain a mix of residential, office and retail space, he says.
Engineering studies will determine whether the towers could withstand earthquakes, always a concern in one of the world's most seismically active regions. Macris doesn't see a problem.
"Seismic experts regard tall buildings as functioning very well" in earthquakes, because their foundations are built on deep pilings sunk in bedrock, he says.
Still, the towers are likely to attract critics. John King, urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called Piano's concept "provocative and elegant" but "too much of a good thing."
King wrote that the scheme is "too tall for the site and too tall as a precedent for what might follow nearby." Better, he wrote, "if scaled at more modest heights."
City planners are studying how height should be incorporated downtown and may not approve buildings as tall as those conceived by Piano, Macris says. But 1,200 feet hasn't been ruled out, he says.
"Tall should not be equated with either good or bad,
says Henry Urbach, curator of architecture and design at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. "The skyline in a city like San Francisco is never fixed once and for all. For a city to evolve, it needs to be willing to risk its skyline."
Thin is in
The towers would be skinny by the standards of skyscraper construction over the past 50 years. Tall and slender is an urban-design trend that has taken hold in Europe and, most prominently in North America, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Piano has compared his towers to a cluster of bamboo shoots, with different shoots growing to different heights. Picture a pipe organ, Macris says.
Slender buildings block less light on the street. They don't restrict views as blockier buildings do. Their impact on pedestrians and traffic is lessened. Outside light reaches more of the interior space. And they simply look nice.
"Slender in the sky is a great aesthetic advantage. We're very conscious of that," Macris says.
In the 1920s and 1930s, before air conditioning, many slender skyscrapers were built, particularly in New York and Chicago, because windows could be closer to the core of a building. "When air-conditioning technology improved after World War II, we got a lot of pretty thick building in the sky," Macris says. "We'd like to return to some of that slenderness."
Since Piano's concept was unveiled, there have been concerns over its similarity to the World Trade Center towers in New York that collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Chris Daly, a San Francisco supervisor whose district includes South of Market, says Piano's towers are shaped differently and represent more of a "Chicago look," although from one vantage point they do appear to be similar, side-by-side towers."It's probably not a coincidence," Daly says. "Piano probably did it on purpose. He's always trying to make his mark." (c) Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.