THE GOLDEN PLATE / UNION SQUARE, SAN FRANCISCO
CLIENT: San Francisco Prize, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (S.P.U.R.)
SITE: existing landscaped park above civic parking garage in/as Union Square, the heart of the shopping district in downtown SF
PROGRAM: An ideas competition for the redesign of the park and garage to address concerns about visual and physical accessibility into and across the site.
SIZE: one city block
COMPETITION: Fall 1997 (competition)
NOTES: All exposed structural steel truss and frame assembly, with concrete walking surfaces and planting tubs for trees and turf; new structure bearing upon existing garage column grid in place of the park construction presently covering the garage.
PUBLICATIONS: C3 Korea 0309 no. 299; Contemporary Public Space Un-volumetric Architecture, Skira, ‘05; Techno Architecture, Thames & Hudson, 2000
“Urban Design as a practice often amounts to a competition between standing out and fitting in; its successes attributable to a proportionate balance of highlights and background elements, its failures to the tipping of that balance in either direction. The calculation of this balance is never free, of course. History and economic necessity present opportunities and also constrain them; the political equation that rules the life of the city also determines its design. As in the life of the city, the urban project’s selfish urge for specific aggrandizement must be in equilibrium with the need for greater cooperation.
Civic architecture, though, always bears the contradictory responsibility to promote itself, as a symbol and agent of that cooperation. The civic project that remains politely discreet and does not seize this inspirational role is worse than a waste — it becomes a symbol of the opposite. The grandeur it tries to avoid becomes directly a sign of the city’s lack of identity, its governors’ indifference and its citizens’ timidity.
It is with this in mind that we approach the redesign of Union Square. We see it as an opportunity to create a new icon for the city, instead of merely being an exercise in providing for the requisite sight lines and traffic patterns. Union Square could be another Golden Gate.
The value the Golden Gate Bridge holds for San Francisco is not only, or even chiefly, functional. Its iconic status has much less to do with its operation than its simple presence. While its legend is certainly embroidered by the (sometimes unforeseen) activities it hosts (like suicide), its inarguably important reality as a major artery pales beside its presence in the imagination as a view from Telegraph Hill. Similarly, that other staple of the San Francisco brand identity, the cable car, gains its iconic value not from its convenience to the users (mostly tourists, paying a steep fare that is a dead giveaway to the cable car’s real role as entertainment), but from the picturesque impression they make, hanging on as the car makes its way up or down San Francisco’s precipitous hills. An ecology of myth has been woven between the cable car’s anachronistic survival and the hill’s cooperative witness, the Golden Gate’s distant towers emerging from the fog and then unexpectedly from between foreground victorians. The myth holds both at the distance proper for viewing. It is as if an institution must find some such distance for its value to achieve the superfluity that could make it an icon.
What possibility does Union Square have to achieve this status when it is likely to be engaged fully in the daily, functional life of the shopping heart of the city? Can that distance be achieved here — can Union Square avoid being swallowed by the life it hosts? Such distance is a matter of degree and perception. It may ultimately be necessary, but it is no guarantee: Coit Tower’s lesser success as a civic icon suggests that some connection to the life of the city, however attenuated or antiquated, is necessary for the candidate to be accepted — as representative, and at some point as iconic.
San Francisco’s sense of itself as a shopper’s paradise should argue for Union Square’s possibilities within the greater myth, since it anchors the heart of the shopping district. Union Square could matter in a way that the cable car or Golden Gate cannot, because it can be inhabited, experienced as an entire environment. In fact, it is above all the sense that the heart needs an angioplasty — that the present park in Union Square impedes the free flow of retail energy — that is driving the call for redesign. The competition brief makes no mention of any particular interest in Union Square as a symbol or destination, or in its role in the cultural life of the city, but it is very interested in improving the sightlines across the park from street to street. The present work seeks to demonstrate that an iconically bold design could arise, literally, from this consideration.
The present design proposes to strip the cover from the parking garage, to reveal the otherwise hidden depths of the garage to the shopper, while providing light and air to the parkeur down in these depths. By this act also the offending topography of the existing park is removed and views across the site become possible. The activities formerly hosted by the park, as well as a few others it does not presently accommodate, are distributed across a number of "plates" raised above eye level on an exuberant, exposed steel structure that springs from the existing column grid. These plates are accessed from street level by a variety of ramps, stairs, and catwalks, which also provides views down into the exposed garage.
Iconic value will be found mostly in the audacity of the idea, since little overt design is offered. Only in this way, we believe, can a design such as this be both bold and responsible: only by avoiding the personal flourish and signature effect that today passes for design can a project engage the political (as anything proposed for Union Square must) without becoming completely watered-down. Can boldness bring people together, without merely uniting them in opposition? Could a real civic icon be created for that budget, if there was a will to do so?