The State That I Am In

August 31, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes
South facade of the Morphosis-design Federal Buiding in San Francisco

South facade of the Morphosis-designed Federal Buiding in San Francisco

When I was an architecture student in Pittsburgh 20 years ago, one of the first vanity monographs I bought was about Morphosis, the Los Angeles firm started by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi (who moved on  to found Roto Architects in 1991). Their fractured forms, rendered in meticulously inked drawings and gritty models, were eye-opening to us budding designers studying in a city not known for its architectural adventurousness.

This memory came back to me as I toured—with fellow columnist, Adrienne Skye Roberts (see her related post) and Open Space editor-in-chief, Suzanne Stein—the Morphosis-designed United States Federal Building that looms large over the South of Market neighborhood like a giant, modern-day aerie of government regality. As an architecture school graduate and brief practitioner, I admire the building for its sheer creative chutzpah, especially considering the client is the federal government. The Morphosis tics, that two decades earlier rarely expanded beyond southern California and the scale of a modest private home or restaurant interior, are now super-sized with this work. So while my architecture aficionado side can’t help but be thrilled, the American citizen in me is left a little uneasy.

The Federal Building anchors the northwest corner of Mission and 7th Streets, its immediate surroundings a neighborhood still in transition. Any effort to enable active public space here would face obstacles, but the barren plaza that greets one approaching from Mission Street seems intentionally off-putting, down to the security cameras that sprout from a high pole that at first glance resemble a dual-pronged lamp. These features, coupled with the structure’s willful disregard for the street level experience, have the collective effect of a giant “Beware of Government” sign.

The plaza and the sneakly security cameras

The plaza and the sneaky security cameras

Once inside, though, the experience is warmer. For such a large building, there’s a surprising comfort and intimacy to the main lobby with its mélange of colliding forms and materials interrupted by bursts of natural light. The almost four-floor main vault is offset by scattered fauna and the intimate scale of the main egress lines. One isn’t really connected to the world outside anymore, but the space feels secure and safe.

Federal Building, main lobby.

Main lobby

The upper floors fight Brazil-like monotony by adding finely crafted wood panels and spacious three-story lobbies (“to promote exercise” claim the self-guided tour material), four of which feature Ed Ruscha banner works that span the height of the vertical walls opposite the elevators. The centerpiece of the tour is the Skygarden, a three-story outdoor observation deck that frames commanding views of the city. It also doubles as a James Turrell installation that is most appreciated at night from the street below. (And maybe solely appreciated from this vantage point since only the employees are allowed in the building after 3pm.)

Upper lobby wood panels

Upper lobby wood panels

Ed Ruscha, _I DID DID I_, 2006

Ed Ruscha, _I DID DID I_, 2006

View of San Francisco from the Skygarden

View of San Francisco from the Skygarden

While it’s never easy locating stylistic influences in a Morphosis design, I was reminded of the Imperial Empire’s megastructures in the original Star Wars trilogy. Darth Vader would have been very pleased with this building’s imposing profile and enjoyed the vantage point of the outdoor observation deck, so perfect for pumping up a horde of stormtroopers en route to a skirmish with the Rebel Alliance. (So THAT’S what the empty plaza below is for!)

I use this pop culture reference point not to belittle, but to emphasize the building’s sinister overtones that reinforce the imperial tendencies of the Bush years and amplify the (often irrational) fears of our populace. Idealistic aspirations, now back in the vogue with the Obama presidency, are not present here, architecturally. Even the details that probably were created to add a much needed humanity often do the opposite. The scrolling LED banner greeting visitors in the elevators above the sliding doors is slighty Orwellian. Whether it’s the context or intentional, the palindromic Ruscha pieces evoke more an ominous sense of doom than the quiet and playful ambiguity usually present in his other works.

Elevator LED

Elevator LED

So it’s no surprise that the standard presidential photo of a smiling Barack Obama—our Luke Skywalker (for now)—that greets one in the entrance lobby feels out of place in a house really fit for an autocratic emperor. Granted this design was realized in the Bush era, but is this really what the client and architect intended? Is the building some kind of critical comment on government? Or did creative and legislative hubris blind the its enablers to these associations? (And which explanation is the more unnerving?)

The wild card in all of this is the actual people who work there. On the day we visited the guards running the security screening checkpoint were chatty and accommodating. One of the employees we stopped to ask about the use of the Skygarden and the public lobbies couldn’t have been more open and accommodating to our questions. There was even a easel-mounted poster in the main lobby urging employees to voice their opinion on how their work environment meets their needs. The question is whether all this goodwill is a result, or in spite of, the architecture. And maybe it doesn’t matter. If architecture is, first and foremost, about the human needs it services, then this project, at least for the employees we encountered, is a rousing success. (Especially if one also considers its LEED-certified “America’s Greenest Federal Building” status, at least according to the tour materials.)

Poster in main lobby

Poster in main lobby

The building’s failure is, instead, an external one outside its climate-controlled hallways and the formalist vacuums we often evaluate such projects. From the street, Mayne’s building speaks to a bunker mentality, not democratic idealism. What we really need now is architecture that tilts—like our new president—toward inspiring hope and change, not highlighting what divides us. Mr. Mayne, your building, formally sublime as it may be, is not the sovereign or mental state we are in.

6 Comments

  1. Taylor Wright Says:

    This is an interesting perspective, I should visit the building to find my own. As a nerd I can understand the Star Wars comments in a way that doesn’t condescend. As a piece of architecture I’m compelled, as a citizen I’m waylaid and feel the style becomes very reminiscent of Brazil (third act) in an unknowingly self deprecating manner.

  2. Darin Vieira Says:

    “From the street, Mayne’s building speaks to a bunker mentality, not democratic idealism. What we really need now is architecture that tilts—like our new president—toward inspiring hope and change, not highlighting what divides us.”

    Nevermind that this building accomplishes – at its scale – what no other building on earth has done to make tangible use of theories on sustainability; defending the promise of Obama’s stance on our “green” future as a nation. The irony of this editorial lies in the author’s inability to see past archaic notions of formal critique, that somehow steel and concrete represent the solid, cold hands of conservatism. Equating the presence of this building to the past two terms of American presidency is absurd. Do your research. Understand that both the form, and function of this building – so dependent on one another that they can not be seen as separate – are an answer to the call made by the Obama administration for a revitalization of American inventiveness. Perhaps the “state we are in” is the problem – still begging to be dazzled by glamor of excess as opposed to the unsettling nature of change.

  3. Eric Heiman Says:

    Mr. Vieria, thanks for your comment.

    Since you didn’t address this in your reply, I’m curious to know if you find one’s individual experience of a building to be a worthy lens in which to critique? I do admire (and laud in the post) both the Federal Building’s sustainable and formal accomplishments. I have no axe to grind with buildings of concrete and steel, nor was I looking “to be dazzled by glamor (sic) of excess.” I’m simply trying to put into words how it makes me feel as a citizen, rather than as a design practitioner or architecture lover. If anything, that seems most important to me riding by this building on my bike as often as I do.

    Granted it has a different purpose and much more forgiving site, but Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, also here in San Francisco, is a possible foil in this discussion. This building is equally ambitious on the sustainable front, and while Piano’s forms may be more muted (though also rendered in concrete and steel), the experience there feels much more in line with the building’s intent and surrounding context.

  4. Nancy Says:

    I have never gone inside but I do find the outside cold and forbidding with no effort to blend or compliment the space around it. But then, it was planned and built during the last administration so the bunker mentality doesn’t surprise me. I’m surprised that you were allowed to take photos because everytime I’ve tried to take the most innocent photo of some portion of a federal building (ANY federal building), I’ve been stopped by a guard.
    I also wonder what the air quality is in the building for the people who work there. I’ve worked in some climate controlled buildings and found that the air hot and stale.

  5. JJ Says:

    In fact, here, I cannot fathom the reasoning with which Mr. Viera promotes an agenda for Obama, when the building plans were originally coming from operating under the Bush administrations. Eric sounds like a professional, but Viera digresses only to condemn what really isn’t conservatism, but a complete geographical change in perspective that Eric recognizes and that I also have serious problems with.

    You see, America has not really changed that much in the profesional world in terms of Architectural studies and multi-practitioner “critique”(huh)? but Eric recognizes the fallacies involved in the structure and apparent costs involved) and is not afraid to voice a professional opinion.

    Perhaps Viera could be a little more honest, and decide formally what he considers to be real change, and the effect that change has upon normal, everyday, U.S. government working people -and also decidedly experienced architects and architecture as a profession. Heiman’s comments are “timely” as well as accurate, in my own opinion. Sustainable “green” architecture is in truth a misnomer and if Viera knew who really is behind all of the work, maybe he could see clear to “changing” his own mind about why true conservatism and “archaic notions of formal critique” are taught at college and university levels so profoundly.

  6. Darin Vieira Says:

    JJ and Eric, I appreciate your commentary surrounding the politics of professional practice and evaluation from an experiential perspective. Although I think it is important to understand that I am in no way proposing that this building “promotes an agenda for the Obama administration,” but rather presupposes a manner of architectural practice that has yet to be embraced, both formally and ideologically, by the discourse and society as a whole. Likewise it is crucial to understand that there is a programmatic subversion taking place in this building that favors the “everyday working people,” allocating perimeter office space to the non-managerial positions and confining private offices to the interior, therefore offering a more democratic disposition for the office floor. I do value an individual’s experience of a building, but details such as these are often overlooked by sensational evaluations. Furthermore, it is equally pertinent to understand that the conjecture of fallacy expressed in the posture of the building is a direct result of yet another strategic move to promote this structure as a Democratic space; minimizing the footprint to allocate an area for public interaction at the street level as opposed to a confined, squatty extrusion of the site so typical of the city’s landscape. Regardless of these details, my commentary is specifically directed toward the aesthetic politics that too often reduce the practice of architecture to style and accommodation. True change cannot be accommodating and must always be prospective, a political sentiment that Morphosis and other so-called deconstructivists have argued for at bay in the face of criticism over the last 30-40 years – one that is only now finding port in the current desperate socio-economic-political landscape.
    As a side note: In November 2009 Thom Mayne was selected by to President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
    http://www.pcah.gov/members.html

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