South African-born Stanley Saitowitz is one of the most respected, polarizing, and prolific designers in San Francisco, and yet outside of architecture circles his name is not well known.
His high-profile Yerba Buena Lofts on Folsom Street, one of the biggest and most recognizable local projects completed by his firm, Natoma Architects, is now 18 years old. Another Saitowitz endeavor that many San Franciscans will recognize, 8 Octavia, was completed in 2015 and featured on HBO’s Looking. These residential projects share an emphasis on exposed concrete, and an innovative approach to privacy—the former using columns of stacked channel glass to let light in, and the latter featuring a series of vertical louvers that residents can mechanically open and close from within, constantly changing the texture of the building’s facade.
Both buildings show off a signature of Saitowitz’s style, a strident form of modernism that tries to push forward the visual conversation begun by Mies van der Rohe and his contemporaries.
Saitowitz’s work has spanned four decades and can’t easily be summed up by his love of concrete and geometric simplicity. San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King has said Saitowitz’s buildings “share a distilled rigor, at once forceful and precise.” The designer’s highly intellectual approach to design began as a student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and when he speaks about his architecture, he tends to speak of tailoring buildings to their sites. But also, like many in his field, he can get quite abstract.
“I’m working on two morphologies, one sensual, the other mental,” said Saitowitz in a 1996 monograph of his work. “These recur in varying priorities. In the landscape, flow dominates; in the city, rigor.”
He admits today that his work as a professor of architecture (he’s now emeritus) for over three decades at the University of California at Berkeley greatly influenced his designs.
“Being both academic and practical is the hallmark of our practice,” Saitowitz says.
While his more recent residential work revels in right angles and stark geometries, the evolution of Saitowitz’s vision began with one of his earliest commissions, the Transvaal House in the province formerly known as Transvaal in South Africa, built in 1978. Like some of his other small-scale work that would continue into the 1990s, the Transvaal House takes its cues from its immediate landscape, the highveld of inland South Africa. Saitowitz imagines the house and its attached workshop and garage as “three huts loosely woven with the earth.” The resulting design, with its corrugated metal roof barrels and irregular window patterns, is well ahead of its time, and was the first of many projects that would gain wide attention and come to exemplify what Saitowitz dubbed “geological architecture.”
In a monograph that accompanied a 1991 solo exhibition of his works, titled Geological Architecture, Saitowitz writes of his designs as “the remaking of the crust of the earth to capture space on the horizon.”
When asked how his practice has evolved to address urban spaces, Saitowitz tells Curbed: “My work began with houses in landscapes under the umbrella of architecture as human geography—I thought of buildings as weaving ground and sky to capture space, similar to the way geological forces produce topography. When I began working in cities, my interests shifted to urban geography, which I considered as natural as landscape, and focused on architecture in continuity with the fabric of the city.”
Saitowitz likes to make comparisons to car manufacturers when he discusses the practice of architecture—noting, for instance, Porsche’s practice of remaking every part of the car for each successive model, while maintaining a continuity of design aesthetics.
“We’re not really that interested in novelty,” he said in a 2009 interview about his firm with ArchDaily. “[That’s] one way that innovation is sometimes construed. But rather [we’re focused] in terms of refinement and constant progress, but sometimes in ways that are less immediate or less obvious.”
Examples of this process of refinement can be seen in some of his recent residential work, like a trio of buildings on the SoMa alley that gives the name to his firm, Natoma Street, in San Francisco.
1022 Natoma Street, in which the firm has its offices, was completed in 1993, and features airy, two-level loft units fitted with wood and steel beams, and abundant use of glass. 1028 Natoma was completed in 2005 and features a steel mesh scrim across its facade that appears nearly opaque from some angles during daylight hours, but comes alive with rectangles of light from within at night.
It would go on to receive an AIA Honor Award in 2007. 1029 Natoma Street, across the street, was completed in 2007 and shows a move to a more stripped-down modernism, with four units that feature multiple sliding glass doors and simple layouts, as well as a facade of staggered vertical sun-shade “fins.”
The stunning 1234 Howard Street, completed in 2007 and awarded the American Institute of Architects Merit Award the following year, is a study in transparency, light, and negative space. Two “bars” of stacked, jewel box-like residential units are separated by an open-air shaft, which is cut through by floating footbridges.
Here we see Saitowitz playing first with the idea of a dynamic facade of louvered shades controlled from within—here they’re horizontal, while a few years later he would employ vertical ones at 8 Octavia, and multiply the effect 10-fold across a larger structure. While it may cause some anxiety among lovers of complete privacy, 1234 Howard is easily one of the firm’s best designs, and the most emblematic of Saitowitz’s vision for in-fill architecture.
An even more refined and jewel box-like modernist home can be found in one of the firm’s most recent commissions, dubbed the OZ Residence in Atherton, California. Completed in 2017, it’s a set of long, sleek, L-shaped glass boxes stacked and cantilevered at perpendicular angles on a hillside with views of San Francisco. A small moat surrounds the austere entry platform, and a rectangular swimming pool is framed by a courtyard on the opposite side of the house, softened by a row of mature trees. With its mix of concrete, glass, black steel framing, and clean white surfaces, the house creates its own geological expression, abutting and growing out of the hillside like an especially modernist, crystalline rock formation.
Another as-yet-unconstructed residential project in Tiburon, for art dealer turned developer Serge Sorokko, takes a similar form, though stretched along at a single axis, and with more opportunity for blurring the indoor and outdoor realms. And similarly, the Bridge House, located in Sleepy Hollow, takes an elongated form, though here using a “rusted bar” aesthetic with the use of weathered steel siding panels.
While Saitowitz’s recent residential work is marked by austerity, his firm has gone in many different directions over the decades, exploring commercial and religious architecture as well. Saitowitz was celebrated in the Jewish community for his 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston—a set of six glass towers, etched with seven-digit numbers to evoke the tattoos of those who died in the Holocaust, with each tower representing one of the six main death camps in Poland. The towers form an illuminated walkway; visitors walk through each of them in a row, with the insides of each tower etched with quotations from witnesses to the Holocaust.
The memorial was the first major competition win for Saitowitz, putting him on the national stage. It also led to other commissions from Jewish communities around the country, including his Beth El Synagogue in La Jolla (2000) and the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University in Philadelphia (2016). The latter is unique among Saitowitz’s work because of its use of brick, woven into textured columns on the facade—an echo of the masonry buildings that fill this older, East Coast city, as well as a visual nod to the uneven stripes of a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl.
Saitowitz’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, completed in 2008 in San Francisco’s Richmond District, takes the form of an ark or boat, with the curvilinear sanctuary sitting beside a square, modern structure used for social activities. Saitowitz says that with this project, he wanted to create “a sacred vessel” that would be the sanctuary, which here is a windowless ark with seats rising up each side of the hull. The only natural light in the space comes from above, with one slice of sky hanging over the center of the space, casting a moving line of light across its eastern wall like a sundial, and a “shadow menorah” formed by seven beams that cut across another skylight running the length of this back wall.
“The building is both ancient and modern,” says Saitowitz, “drawn from traditions and texts in the hope of revitalizing the present.”
The Yerba Buena Lofts project at 855 Folsom Street catapulted Saitowitz’s name, and that of Natoma Architects, most decisively onto the national stage, in 2001. The massive condominium complex in San Francisco’s burgeoning, formerly industrial SoMa district is most notable for the playful, neo-Brutalist staggering of shafts of concrete with tall, narrow stacks of opaque channel glass—providing ample light and privacy for the street-facing units. Saitowitz describes it as a “vertical grid” and a “translucent egg crate,” saying he wanted to design something that fit with the SoMa tradition of “matter-of-fact industrial buildings that have been converted to lofts, robust frames that support habitation and personalization.” He also saw the channel glass bays as a nod to Victorian bay windows.
The building is loved by many, and certainly fits in the context of current-day SoMa, but that was not always the case. Chronicle urban design critic John King complained in 2004 that the building looked like “piston rods frozen in motion or a stack of enormous gray packing crates that glow at night,” and said a coworker called it “the worst thing he had seen since the Jack Tar Hotel,” referring to the infamously out-of-scale and hideous Van Ness Hotel on the site of the new CPMC hospital.
In a different urban mode, Saitowitz provides a utopian approach to modular housing in the form of the Garden Village complex in Berkeley, completed in 2016. Modeled after cities in Europe with narrow, pedestrian-focused streets flanked by multistory apartment buildings, this 77-unit student housing complex is divided into 18 individual, free-standing structures, which themselves are made of stackable, pre-constructed modules. Their roofs are topped with an actual working farm called Top Leaf Farms.
Given its economy, the complex is less showy from the outside, but its functionality and ingenuity, and the cozy grass-lined paths that separate the detached structures, make the design important in other ways.
One of Natoma Architects’ most impactful commissions for a public space came with the Tampa Art Museum, completed in 2010. The simple, box shape of the building belies sophisticated details, including a perforated steel scrim that lets in natural light, reflects daylight, and allows light to emanate from within at night. The art gallery spaces are raised 40 feet above ground level, with the cantilevered building mass providing a shaded “porch” below along the waterfront. And this cantilever serves a practical purpose as well, protecting the galleries from flooding by raising the building above the floodplain. Additionally, one side of the museum is illuminated with changing colors in the evening, which then reflect off the water.
Recently completed and in-progress works in San Francisco are Saitowitz’s designs for 555 Fulton Street—which takes the channel glass bays from Yerba Buena Lofts and simplifies them with paint-striped glass—which opened in 2018; the industrial chic 340-350 11th Street; the 24-unit, boldly contemporary 603 Tennessee; this mid-rise residential project on the site of the former Stars restaurant at 555 Golden Gate Avenue; a unique glass mid-rise residential project at 1033 Polk that uses concrete only for staggered balconies; and this proposed building at the prominent corner of Grove and Van Ness.
Natoma Architects, and Saitowitz, have more recently been making moves in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles with their designs for a large residential tower on Chicago’s South Loop, another large residential tower at 1111 Sunset Boulevard, a luxury Miami Beach resort in the form of a “horizontal ocean liner,” and a competition proposal for the Angel’s Landing project in downtown LA—though that commission went to another Bay Area name, Handel Architects.
“Over the years we have developed strategies for dense urban homes which use midcentury modern architecture of free space and light as the model,” says Saitowitz of his forays into Los Angeles. “We have also formulated an aesthetic way to turn the horizontal city of Los Angeles vertical, where streets become structure and yards balconies, in these light and layered towers.”
But if you ask him about the work being done by other architects to raise the height limits of San Francisco’s skyline, he’s less than impressed.
“In LA there is a keen interest in design and aesthetics,” Saitowitz tells Curbed. “Oddly, San Francisco’s new tall buildings are totally divorced from the traditional beauty of the city’s architecture. There are such great examples of earlier San Francisco towers with crenelated white walls and punched windows, buildings inspired by our amazing undulating streetscapes, piled into the sky. There is no excuse for the current generic glass curtain wall towers when we have such rich precedents of how to build uniquely San Francisco tall buildings.”
The body of work, taken together, shows a mature architectural practice that defies easy categorization. Saitowitz works in a midcentury mode while embracing contemporary materials and functionality, all the while reserving the right to invent new forms entirely.
“What has remained constant in all [of my] projects for more than 40 years is the idea of architecture as a tool of liberation, a way of promoting freedom,” says Saitowitz. “I am much less interested in self-expression than in establishing opportunities that enable occupants to express themselves. This has meant buildings that are instruments rather than objects, more like telephones than conversations, more like cameras than photographs.”
He adds, “What continues to challenge and thrill [me] is the ability to make things up and then make them real, bringing into the world things that did not exist. Our work is a way to repair places piece by piece, a corner here, a slot there, always aiming to intensify the found uniqueness and leave it reformed and in a better condition, a tiny fragment of a more ideal city and a better world.”