The Rocketship featured on the cover of the SF Chronicle’s Datebook section.

Positive changes around S.F. and environs in 2010

John King

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Laura Morton / Special to The Chronicle

The “Raygun Gothic Rocketship,” a retro-themed sculpture, was installed at Pier 14 in San Francisco in August.

The odd extremes of 2010 come down to this: Within 24 hours, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, and the flat-earth movement captured Washington, D.C.

And when we narrow our focus to Bay Area architects, I’d be hard-pressed to name the 10 best buildings of the year – or even 10 major structures that got built.

On the bright side? The year saw neighborhood-scaled planning that teases us with the promise of sustainable, transit-friendly urbanity. Long-overdue infrastructure projects finally started construction, such as the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel and the reinvention of Doyle Drive.

Last, but adamantly not least, San Francisco and environs saw positive changes we can touch and experience, not just read about. Here are 10, in no particular order:

Bootstrap urbanity: My name for the ingenious efforts by architects and public space advocates to carve eddies in the urban swirl – from the “parklets” concept that is replacing parking spaces with bits of seating to more ambitious efforts where awkward intersections are being converted to “temporary” landscaped plazas. Aesthetically, some work better than others, but San Francisco’s lucky to have such experimentation in its midst.

San Francisco transit shelters: Naysayers carp that on rainy, windy days, these shelters are no shelters at all, because they include wide openings on the back to allow easy access for people in wheelchairs. With 100 shelters now sprinkled across the landscape, in seven site-specific permutations by Lundberg Design, what I see is a rippling treat, roofs of red and orange that add grace to our urban terrain.

One Hawthorne: When (if?) construction cranes again appear on the downtown horizon, let’s hope they spawn new towers as neighborly as this 24-story residential high-rise designed by EHDD Architecture. It’s a too-snug fit for the site, but the clean modernity is right at home near Yerba Buena Gardens.

H2 Hotel: At a time when so much infill development is tawdry skin-deep mockitecture, this five-story inn near Healdsburg’s central plaza shows how to do it right. David Baker + Partners crafted a building at once contemporary and contextual, so keyed to its location that on warm Wine Country days, the ground-floor walls fold up and disappear.

Potrero Branch Library: San Francisco’s Bureau of Architecture worked wonders with a mid-block library on Potrero Hill from 1951, turning the dilapidated structure into a glassy beacon of literacy – including panoramic walls at the rear that showcase the city beyond. Bureaucracy at its best.

“Raygun Gothic Rocketship”: My plebian idea of triumphant public art is something engaging and brash, a charmed surprise up close and from afar. Bonus points for the local angle: This 40-foot-tall stainless steel whim will be on display along the Embarcadero through next fall, thanks to the Black Rock Arts Foundation of Burning Man fame.

Oakland Museum of California: Kevin Roche’s understated collage of right-angled concrete was brought into the 21st century by Mark Cavagnero Associates. The changes exude a disciplined order, such as a crisp new canopy at the Oak Street entrance, but they also make space for Job One: the enticing display of art.

Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory: The year’s most ingenious building addition can’t be seen from the street; instead, a high school at the base of immense St. Mary’s Cathedral filled a courtyard with a concrete-walled theater, its scalloped form taking cues from the icon that Herb Caen often likened to a washing machine. Case + Abst Architects.

Gallery House: I tend to ignore private homes, but this three-story insert is on the uber-public South Park. It’s also a tutorial by Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects in experimental design with opaque glass along the street and two black voids above, screened by a web-like abstraction of weathered steel rods. A focused provocation that earns your double-take.

Robert I. Schroder Overcrossing: In today’s “crabbed and fearful” America – thank you, Jon Carroll – any government expenditure beyond pothole repairs is scorned as a debt-inducting frill. But with this metallic footbridge that leaps across Treat Boulevard near the Pleasant Hill BART Station, engineer Arup and architect Donald Macdonald show that our society can still create public works of lasting merit, worthy of pride, if only we try.

This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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