clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art facade with a patterned column.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Filed under:

San Francisco’s most polarizing buildings

Love ’em or loathe ’em, these structures won’t be ignored

Thom Mayne’s jarring yet alluring Federal Building, an 18-story structure with a curtain of perforated steel punctuated by a large square cut-out framing a privately owned public park, and the Glen Park BART station, a concrete public transportation dream, divide many.

Architecture geeks admire them; others shield their eyes.

Here are a handful of San Francisco’s love-it-or-hate-it buildings. Many of them are of the contemporary variety, but also there are a few stalwarts in here for good measure.

A tall and bulky steel structure that gleams in the sunlight. Photo via Shutterstock
Photo by Brock Keeling

San Francisco Federal Building (2007)

While the 18-story Federal Building itself cannot be blamed for the the dispossessed around the blighted area, the building hasn’t proven to be the joyous people-filled plaza it had once promised. The vast and arid park section of the space, which was intended to be a place for markets, concerts, and mingling, failed on all three fronts.

That being said, this is a government building, a type of structure best served with heavy helpings of architectural bravado once reserved for eastern bloc countries. After all, who wants a federal buildings to be cozy, welcoming, and warm?

In 2008, the building won a design award from the AIA San Francisco chapter.

A tall and bulbous high-rise with a gleaming top covered in windows. Photo via Shutterstock

San Francisco Marriott Marquis (1989)

One of eight Marriott International hotels in the city, this one in SoMa is perhaps the most (in)famous. Lovingly nicknamed “the Jukebox” by locals—most notably columnist Herb Caen who, though an icon, clumsily took offense at any and all new architecture—who once complained that reflections from the hotel's windows blinded him inside his office at the nearby Chronicle building.

Today we couldn’t imagine the neighborhood without it. The postmodern design sprang from the mind of DMJM architect Anthony J Lumsden. It recently celebrated 20 years in operation.

Photo by Scott Schiller

One Rincon Hill (2008)

Referred to in vulgar parlance as the city’s USB memory stick or air purifier, One Rincon Hill set the trend for the current batch of high-rises cropping atop Rincon Hill. Completed in 2008, with a second tower finished in 2014, it was designed by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz, and Associates.

Of meteorological note, the crown of the south tower contains a band of 25 LED floodlights that are used to signal the weather. The tip glows red if warmer weather is in the forecast, blue crown if cold weather is afoot, green means that there’s at least a 50 percent chance of rain, and amber denoted that the weather will be unchanged.

Photo by Shutterstock

Intercontinental Hotel (2008)

Noted by locals for being the hue of Otter Pop’s Louie Blue, this SoMa hotel (former U.S. President Barack Obama’s preferred place to stay while in town), designed by Patri Merker Architects and Hornberger and Worstell, provides clean lines and a sense of harmony for some. For others, it’s merely a blue monster.

San Francisco Chronicle Urban Design Critic John King noted that while its “aesthetics are wrong for San Francisco,” it’s “a slender building with clean lines and a relaxed presence—and a sharp-looking curtain wall.”

Photo by Brock Keeling

8 Octavia (2015)

While it’s impossible to think that anyone could dismiss this critical piece of work, a few Curbed SF commenters have been known to compare Stanley Saitowitz’s luxury condo complex to a “Hayes Valley prison.”

However, in the short amount of time it’s been at Octavia and Market, it’s provided plenty of positive contrast to the neighborhood’s overabundance of Victorian architecture. What we like best about this behemoth: the vertical louvers, which offer a dizzying array of patterns. Lovely.

Hyatt Regency (1973)

King described this circa-1973 hotel as a “temple of hermetic urbanism,” noting that by 2016 it had become “dated.” However, he went on to praise it as “still visually dazzling, in a futuristic sort of way.” Indeed, inside and out, it remains a stunner. And due to its concrete polish and abundance of right angles, it’s also a favorite for local photographers.

Photo by Patricia Chang

Glen Park BART station (1973)

A brutalist delight or just brutal? The Glen Park BART station is one of San Francisco’s few buildings that use the 1960s European architecture. It’s brooding, its rough, it’s filled with grandeur care of concrete and polished stone.

Designed by Corlett + Spackman and Ernest Born, the station’s drab exterior—bleak in its own right, as it should be—hides airy interiors that benefit from use of heavy shadows, Carrera marble, rough concrete, natural light, canopies, and an inverted skylight.

Of special note is the asymmetrical marble mural, comprised of 100 right-angle pieces in warm brown and red-brown hues, found at the west end of the mezzanine.

“BART has forty-three stations,” wrote John King in Cityscapes, San Francisco and Its Buildings. “[T]his surely is the best.”

Photo by Shutterstock

Hilton San Francisco Chinatown (1971)

Located in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square, this concrete slab of a hotel, created in the brutalist style, reopened in 2006 after a major renovation. The hotel can be reached by Portsmouth Square via a pedestrian bridge across Kearny Street.

Many people detest the looming concrete tower. Understandably so. It’s a lot to look at. But others appreciate its sheer audacity and ability to standout.

A post shared by Bektur (@apolotary) on

San Francisco Armory (1912-1914)

Creating with a castle-like facade, this was initially used as an armory and arsenal for the United States National Guard. It’s historic. It’s large. It’s unseemly. From the cold, muddy exterior to its imposing size in the heart of the Mission District, this building is adored by many for sentimental reasons yet passionately side-eyed by those who would prefer a more polished, less barbaric look.

It’s utterly atrocious—and the neighborhood just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA
Photo by Jeremy Brooks

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995, 2016)

Take your pick: Both the original postmodern Mario Botta building and the 2016 Snøhetta-designed expansion have their admirers and detractors.

The Guardian’s architecture and design critic Olly Wainwright famously derided the latter as “a gigantic meringue with a hint of Ikea.” Ouch.

And Blair Kamin, critic for the Chicago Tribune, called the Botta design “surprisingly standoffish” and “more an intimidating fortress than an enticing people's palace.”

In other words, there’s something for everyone to love and loathe at this building that gets people talking and thinking almost as much as the contemporary art displayed inside.

Photo by Shutterstock

Salesforce Tower (2017)

Winning the moniker of tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, this 1,070-foot structure, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, furrows brows with its unabashed size and prominence from almost any spot in San Francisco

“This tower is more than an office building,” said Fred Clarke of Pelli Clarke Pelli one of the principal architects on the project. “It is fundamentally an act of optimism, comparable to a pyramid or an obelisk, marking a new place on Earth that’s reaching for the heavens.”

It’s also a tad boring. While it remains an excellent addition to the skyline (from afar, the city wouldn’t look right without it), up close it plays it too safe with little to no curb appeal.

Photo by Patricia Chang

The power substation on Eighth Street (1948)

Shortly after it opened in 1948, Architect & Engineer lauded the building, designed by San Francisco architect William Merchant, calling it “ultra modern.” But Adam Brinklow, associate editor of Curbed SF, says, “It looks like a place Skeletor would hide political prisoners.”

Whatever you think of it, it’s hard to miss. It’s just so bulky. Notably, it comes with two cast-stone reliefs on the Eighth Street side created by sculptor Robert B. Howard.

Salesforce Park Photo by Patricia Chang

Transbay Transit Center / Salesforce Park (2018)

After shutting down for nearly 10 months (due to worker crews discovering two cracked beams), Salesforce Park and the Transbay Transit Center reopened July 1 of this year. Though many groused, the $2.2 billion-dollar, 5.4-acre rooftop park and transit structure still proved popular with people who flock to it daily.

Designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the park provides lush lawns and seating areas for hanging out. Most notable is its undulating curtain wall made up of a whopping 3,992 perforated white aluminum panels, which feature a geometrical pattern by mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose.

It also comes with a whimsical gondola that whisks park goers from street level to the park.

Architecture | From Curbed

The Simple Life

10 Questions With | From Curbed

Olalekan Jeyifous Is Imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn


Here’s Why the Golden Gate Bridge Was Singing

View all stories in Architecture