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Transbay Center Takes Cover

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Astounding geometry to grace building exterior

Though still financially troubled, the incoming Transbay Transit Center at least scored an aesthetic win yesterday, when local VIPs—including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—huddled for a photo op around a piece of the mathematically potent aluminum awning that will soon cover the exterior of the building.

Though it’s called an awning, it’s more of a vast screen, consisting of 4,486 conjoined panels that total 132,00 square feet and encircle the entire center. You’ve seen it in the many artists’ renderings of the completed building over the years but probably didn't know what it was. It looks for all the world like a wave of lace, as if the building were being enveloped by a giant, alien doily.

The design is partly practical—as the press release points out, it leaves 37 percent of the exterior skin open, allowing natural light to penetrate the building interior—but it also comes with some serious academic credentials. The pattern is known as Penrose tiling, designed in 1974 by Roger Penrose, an Oxford mathematician, physicist, and knight, noted for his work on black holes.

The pattern is a non-periodic, self-similar quasicrystal. We have no idea what that means either, but apparently putting it together was a remarkable mathematical feat. Its critical element is that it can repeat infinitely across a flat surface, although in the case of the Transit Center its being splayed across a wavy surface. Which is probably not mathematically correct, but it does look cool.

Beyond just being eye candy, the installation of the awning is a signal that the incredibly high profile (the highest in the city, in fact) and sometimes troubled project is moving into its next phase. Having gone from an initial hole in the ground to an ever-rising, cage-like frame, now comes the part where it begins to resemble the finished product.

Barring anything unforeseen, the entire affair will be open for business in late 2017.