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Salesforce Tower, underwhelming by design, opens for business

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Noted skyscraper comes with San Francisco’s lack of “visual swagger”

Aerial view of San Francisco Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The most impressive part of the Pelli Clarke Pelli-designed Salesforce Tower, now officially open for business, is the experience at street level. A structure of this magnitude and unabashed girth, encompassing an entire block, gives passersby pause for appreciation and shock.

As for being a memorable work of innovative and daring design from afar (like the Transamerica Pyramid or the Longaberger basket), this SoMa tower is merely an affable, gentle giant. Neither flashy nor cocky, the looming tower of note seems almost embarrassed of its prominence—and that’s by design.

Per esteemed San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King:

If there’s a downside to such efforts to fit it, it’s that in the process, Pelli Clarke Pelli sacrificed the exuberance that make the best tall towers memorable. Think of the Chrysler Building in New York or Chicago’s John Hancock tower: One has the giddy feel of the jazz age while the other embodies the muscular brawn of the industrial Midwest. Both, though, are symbols of their cities.

In San Francisco there is Timothy Pflueger’s 140 New Montgomery St., the old Pacific Telephone Building, a chiseled cliff complete with terra-cotta eagles up high. Transamerica Pyramid isn’t nearly so compelling inch-for-inch, but its steep relentless ascent is unforgettable.

Salesforce Tower, at least for now, falls short of those other peaks. It is what it is — a signature building done by a firm that works on four continents, hired by a developer of similarly wide reach.

This unimpeachable timid mindset when it comes to building design is so very San Francisco. Proposals that elicit gasps are quickly shot down. Blueprints that thrill are rendered bloodless via planning process. Too many cooks in the Carrera marble kitchen

For example, this swooping SoMa duo will most likely get the axe for something staid. And one look at Mission Bay, a neighborhood that could’ve been an architectural wonder of the west coast, shows the end result of the city’s chronic fear of audaciousness.

Salesforce Tower lobby.
Salesforce Tower lobby.
Photos by Brock Keeling

However, it’s important to remember that Salesforce Tower and its nascent surrounding neighborhood are still works in progress. The crowning 11,000-LED element, conceived by artist Jim Campbell, won’t illuminate until spring. Same goes for the plaza at Mission and Fremont. And the 100,000 square feet of retail space in Salesforce Park, slated to open later this year, are still in the works.

This isn’t to say one won’t come to appreciate the tower. Au contraire. “[W]hile it won’t ever gain visual swagger,” adds King, “you might come to like it more than you expect.”

Above all, Salesforce Tower symbolizes what San Francisco needs more of today: dense, vertical growth.