Architecture nerds mostly love the Morphosis-designed San Francisco Federal Building at 7th and Mission, but it's also a contemporary building that plenty of San Franciscans love to hate. In honor of its 10th birthday, Chronicle architecture critic John King takes a look at how the building is faring, following years of hype before its completion about its innovations, sustainability, and big promises for the activation of its large public plaza which remains pretty sad and empty.
Architect Thom Mayne conceived of a government building with a narrow floorplate that would be LEED certified and use far less energy than a typical office building, utilizing operable windows to capture San Francisco's year-round breezes, and employing a "double skin" that includes a perforated steel outer layer that functions both as a sun shade and as a chimney allowing warm air to rise between it and the building's glass skin. Also, the narrow floors allow fresh air to circulate more easily, and the building's concrete frame absorbs cool evening air to cool down the structure overall. These features have largely worked, as King writes, with the 605,000-square-foot building using 26 percent less energy than a standard tower, however the metal skin did not end up being an effective enough sun shade a year after office workers moved in and complained of constant glare, window shades were installed throughout.
I would also note separately that the steel mesh is already showing signs of weather and a bit of rust, which I'm sure Mayne never intended.
The interior design features skip-stop elevators that serve a group of four three-story atrium lobbies within the column of four large square picture windows on the Mission Street facade lead into these lobbies with the idea behind them being that the lobbies would create more accidental interactions among workers in different departments, and make workers get a little extra exercise by climbing a flight or two of stairs to get to their floor or one just above it. In reality, King says, the federal workers have instead favored the two ADA-required elevators that stop at every floor, leaving the five "express" elevators somewhat less used and the atriums mostly empty.
One success of the design has been the "skygarden" that lives in the big square cut-out in the building, however it hasn't so much caught on as a public space which it is. Members of the public are required to go through a full TSA-style screening to enter the building and access the skygarden, and it's therefore not very well known as a publicly accessible space. King says one mostly just finds workers from the building enjoying their lunches there, but otherwise it sits empty.
Also mostly empty, "with little activity except the swirl of windblown trash," writes King, is the main plaza that he calls a "sad looking void. It's lined with crushed granite that "has sunk below the paved paths that pass through it, with uneven patches where water runs off," and he refers to the whole plaza as a "virtual moat." All the "benches" around the plaza are obviously also designed as terrorism-blocking bollards, and are therefore just sort of menacing and uninviting. Six years ago, neighbors were publicly complaining that the plaza was nothing but a magnet for drug use and defecation as soon as the building emptied out at 5 p.m. each day.
The cafe that sits at the corner of Seventh and Market, currently home to Honey Bistro, hasn't fared too well either, with a metal mesh ceiling inside that King calls "oppressively low." Eating outside comes with the hazards that accompany the surrounding neighborhood, which include homeless people and Sixth Street denizens getting in fights or simply acting strange.
King gets a quote form Mayne over the phone, who says, "We set out to make a building that’s sustainable, that represents the way government should be and how the workplace should be." He adds, regarding the life of the building so far, "We have to believe in the best-case scenario [as architects]. Because of that, you are bound to fall short sometimes."
The design, especially with the multiple lobby atriums and skip-stop elevators, would perhaps have worked better for a creative firm or tech company or any private enterprise, really, that employed people who aren't career civil servants deeply set in their ways.
As for the plaza, it exists in a mostly shadowy wind tunnel most days, and really has been full of litter since about Day One, so plans to liven it with events and farmers' markets never materialized for obvious reasons.
In the end, Mayne's SF Federal Building displays a whole lot more imagination than 90 percent of what's been build in the city since so, so many non-descript, cheap-as-possible residential boxes. In a city that, until very recently, was ridiculously short on world-class architecture, it's a building that stands out in both good and bad ways for its jagged shape and the way it bends and filters light. Love it or hate it, it's ours, and it may end up being one of those buildings that gets better and gets more respect with age.