///////Project Info

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SITE: Existing 4,000 sq. ft. flat parking lot on corner of Second Street and Howard in the SoMa district

PROGRAM: Four floors of luxury residential units above fifteen floors of Very Small Plate commercial space for micro-tenant office uses (i.e., dot.com startups), plus basement parking accessed by auto lift and basement, mid-floor, and rooftop mechanical spaces

SIZE: 90,000 sq. ft. (gross)

COST: $18 million

COMPLETION: Spring 2000 (design)

NOTES: Type I, 1hr construction: structural steel frame on cast-in-place concrete basement and foundations on driven precast piles; steel curtain wall and sunshade system, exposed services throughout; package unit HVAC on each floor

PROJECT TEXT: The high-rise tower inspires embarrassing hyperbole as it prowls the formal space of the city jungle, asserting its dominion as the preeminent typology over the streets and lesser structures. Whether admired for the technical achievement it represents or as a natural and direct condensation of economic forces and real estate dynamics, the tower is a remarkable feat of will and expression. It is far and away the noblest of modernity’s contributions to the historical catalog of form and the clearest statement of the unique capabilities of contemporary building practice.

Fortunately, this sort of embarrassing hyperbole seldom finds its way into design. Since the opportunity to build a tower is given to few, and most of those who are so blessed are large corporate firms who resemble the large corporate clients that hire them, and who consider service their main product, the typical tower design is more a result of construction economics and leasing formulas than design will. The tower’s real achievement is often not apparent. Hidden under layers of anachronistic cladding and silly hats mandated by the City to combat uninspired designs, or closeted behind a defensive banality protecting the architects from such municipal mandate, the originary excitement of the tower is lost. The noble prismatic form becomes an exposure-plane wedding cake, and the details become simple decoration. Such “design” seldom arises organically from the larger program, as Louis Sullivan would have it, or withdraws in favor of some underlying truth, as Mies would prefer; it’s just there, to satisfy a clause in the codes, or not there, to satisfy a budget.

The contemporary tower is usually—and thankfully, given the values it embodies—invisible. A new tower is often noticeable only during construction, and then largely for the disruptions it causes. The obligatory comment about how it looked better before the cladding went on is the only evidence that anyone was paying attention. Still, despite its often less-than-noble provenance, the tower has an unavoidable presence in the city, visible or not. Considering the resources it consumes both during its production and continuously afterward, the traffic it generates, the people it houses, and the business interests it advances, the tower is a big deal. Somehow, even working with the lowered expectations of the spec environment, the contemporary tower designer must recover for the tower the spirit that first conquered the horizon and caused the tall building to be called a skyscraper.

Born of optimism but built often with cynicism, the tower has stood at various times for the aspirations of modernism and the depths to which its once strong social consciousness has sunk, for triumphant capital and market dominance as well as usurious interest rates and monopolistic advantage. The speculative office tower inherits the massing, but little of the pride, good or evil, of its forebears. It cannot avoid the statement of exceptionality its investment must represent, but at the same time it serves an equation that values anonymous conformity. At once proud and sheepish, the contemporary spec office tower combines the aggressiveness of the captain of industry with a bottom-line timidity that turned the once proud flagship world headquarters into the pallid expression of leasing guidelines and exit strategies more common today.

The brief for this project differs only in the specifics of size and location and client from that driving any number of other speculative developer-financed tower designs in the city. But what a difference these specifics make: on the face of it the size of the floor plate is absurd, for example. The design is a direct response on all the requisite levels to the challenge of that absurdity, and the client’s belief that “exceptional” is what happens when value is recognized where others see only lunacy. For the most part the design plays within the rules so that the result pencils out, but it looks for the holes hidden in those rules of thumb and questions the unexamined assumptions underlying the standard equations. Free for most of its height on all four sides, yet too small to bury the core on the interior, the pure prism—resulting from a vertical extrusion of the buildable area of the site to the maximum allowable height—gains a front and back and bilaterally symmetrical orientation that contributes to its sense of upright, figural presence. The plucky little tower stares back into the city, as if facing down its far larger neighbors looming to the north, daring them to step over Howard Street.

Mindful that decoration and finish are expensive, the tower lets it all hang out, exposing all structure and services to the maximum extent allowed by the fire codes and considerations of maintainability (i.e., major use of intumescent paint and sprinklers). Of course, the additional architecture it gains thereby is not unwelcome. Similarly, the free span condition is an offsetting benefit resulting more or less automatically from the spatial constraints of the micro-floorplate. The design as a whole is a catalog of such windfalls. The only overtly willful architectural act is the treatment of the skin, which gradates from tinted to clear glazing as the tower rises, and the arrangement of louvers, which follows this same pattern, so that the visual density at the base gradually gives way to a lightness and transparency as the tower emerges from the city and scrapes the sky.