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Why does Washington DC hate this San Francisco building? [Correction]

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The National Civic Art Society calls the Seventh Street behemoth an eyesore in tirade on modern architecture

A tall building with a flat, rectangular profile, a series of protruding three-story atriums down the center, and a huge, cube-shaped alcove set into the face of the building next to them.
The San Francisco Federal Building in all of its glory.
Via Shutterstock

A Washington, D.C., architect society has opinions about San Francisco architecture—and it appears ready to do something about it.

Last week, a draft leaked of a percolating order called “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” conceived by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that sets its sites on design trends over the past 50 to 60 years, calling newer federal architecture “degraded and dehumanizing,”

The National Civic Art Society’s plan would like to see new federal buildings return to the old days of classical designs with columns and arches so new buildings would looks like affected Parthenon-Colosseum concoctions a la the Capitol Building or the Supreme Court.

The draft singled out the San Francisco Federal Building as one of the designs that have “little aesthetic appeal” and have “not reintegrated our national values.” In other words, the polarizing SoMa structure doesn’t look like anything 100 to 200 years old.

Despite the building’s many awards and critical acclaim, the steely structure remains a sore spot for many locals as well as Pennsylvania Avenue.

Morphosis architect Thom Mayne designed this 18-story conundrum to the tune of $144 million (about $183 million in modern currency). Today the firm credits the building’s design to “a confluence of cultural, political, and ethical decisions,” and says its intent was to “physically democratize the workplace.”

For example, the building puts communal workspaces in the structure’s corner and edge positions while private offices are found near the center of the building—no cushy corner office for the boss.

Many of the elevators stop only every three floors, which sounds frustrating, but is meant to expand the amount of places employees visit and foster personal interaction.

As the New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out in a rave 2007 review, Mayne clearly made it with the standards of the federal General Services Administration’s Design Excellence program in mind, a program founded “to remedy the atrocious architecture routinely commissioned for government offices.”

Before that, the style for federal buildings was entirely listless. For example, peek at the circa-1964 Phillip Burton Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue, a dull yet necrotic look that new structures aimed to avoid.

And the reforms worked. “Federal buildings once came wrapped in classical details, then came faceless slabs; now all bets are off” noted Edward Feiner, a former chief architect for the General Services Administration, in a 2001 interview, in which he called federal architecture “consistent in our inconsistency.”

Feiner also praised the twin high-rises of the Oakland federal building, capped with matching pyramids and connected by a midair umbilicus, as a personal favorite. While it was considered brash when it opened in 1993, the building now appears downright conservative.

Clearly the move to shake up old standards worked. And the results in San Francisco decades later proved popular when the SoMa beast opened. The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic John King called the SF Federal Building “both daunting and dazzling.”

He gushed after its completion, “No other high-rise so casually defies expectations of how a tower ‘ought’ to look.”

James Russell of Bloomberg said that the SoMa-based behemoth “bracingly applies brute urban-industrial energy to [an] environmental agenda.”

And the American Institute of Architects granted it an Excellence In Architecture Award, praising its “sky gardens, tea salons, large open stairs, and flexible floor plans” for doing away with the stodginess of traditional office design.

There were some naysayers too. The LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne gave the building a rare mixed review at the time, describing the design as having “feuding” sensibilities and calling it a “hulking, aggressive tower.”

Well, forward thinking is one thing, but exactly why does the building look like it does? Part of the mandate was the aforementioned “democratization,” the push toward a kind of high-rise that not only broke from people’s assumptions of federal structures, but highlighted how old-fashioned the old aesthetics were.

Take the large cube-shaped terrace in the center of the building (the “sky garden,” which is a privately-owned public space) that proves so distracting to many freeway drivers. Normally architecture takes pains to make large open spaces appear organic and seamless with the rest of the building. But not Mayne, who instead blew a big square hole right in the side. Why should we hide the parts of a building intended to make it more livable, the design seems to argue? For that matter, why be afraid to disrupt uniformity?

A close-up photo of the atriums and large alcove. Dllu

And the building’s protruding atriums lined up vertically pose the same question. It would have been easy to make them less obtrusive, but you’re supposed to know that they’re there.

Even beyond iconoclasm, Mayne’s biggest priorities were environmental; the tower is narrow on one side and extremely broad on the other because it uses natural ventilation instead of air conditioning. The design also allows for heaps of natural light to flood the interiors (to the detriment of some employees who have bemoaned the overload of sunlight). And the perforated metal sunscreens are supposed to cut down on the heat.

At the same time, the building’s beefiness is on account of security concerns. King noted things like “windowless concrete where the buildings face sidewalks” and “car-repellent barriers,” which are unsightly and clash with the eco-friendly vibe, were forced into the equation out of necessity.

The thing about architecture is that you have to live with it for a long time—an entire lifetime, in many cases. Sometimes this is helpful—the Transamerica Pyramid was once called a blemish on the face of the city (Herb Caen loathed it), but now it’s hard to imagine San Francisco without it.

Other times, the long-run proves a formula for buyer’s remorse. Writing on the tenth anniversary of the Federal Building’s opening, King said that it didn’t live up to the hype in hindsight. Alas.

While he still praised it for being “aggressive,” it wasn’t a trendsetter, and the open space that was suppose to invigorate the neighborhood gets little use.

But there’s nothing to say that the neoclassical style, like the Beaux-Arts courthouse across the street, apparently favored by those in the nation’s executive would accomplish those goals any better.

After the order leaked, the American Institute of Architects said that it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates” and argued that staying in the past undermines not only the utility of architecture but also basic values like “freedom of thought and expression.”

SF already has plenty of City Beautiful-style architecture. And while those are wonderful landmarks, they’ve never magically made Civic Center or other surrounding neighborhoods work any better.

Correction: We initially wrote that the federal government helmed the ordered in question, which was false. The nonprofit group the National Civic Art Society spearheaded the critique of modern architecture and the SF Federal Building. The piece has been corrected and updated. Curbed regrets the error.