In the past decade, businesses that lurk in the ether have had a profoundly concrete impact on cities — a few of them, anyway. In San Francisco, tech companies have made every patch of dirt and square foot of flooring an ultraluxury commodity. They’ve reshaped the skyline, transformed streets, boosted homelessness, and shifted commuting patterns. One offspring from this marriage of software and hard steel is the Transbay district, a frictionless, caffeinated neighborhood of fast elevators and lush plants that fans out from a new bus station designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. What started out as the Transbay Transit Center now bears the name of an especially vaporous entity: Salesforce, a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) specialist in customer-relationship management (CRM). (I’m not really sure what happens when you toss all those terms into a pot and stir, but it seems to produce some moneymaking fumes.)
This was once just plain South of Market, a vast area beloved mostly by those who like their cities underpopulated, run down, rule-free, and cheap. In 2009, the city’s planning commission noted that its hazy future, “combined with the social and physical isolation of the area from the rest of the city, attracted populations on the margins of mainstream America, such as artists, immigrants, radicals, and gays.” A 1976 photograph by Michael Jang shows a lone car in a parking lot as big as a prairie, with the towers of the Financial District on the horizon. Another photographer, Janet Delaney, spent eight years in the late 1970s and early ’80s documenting on the series South of Market, which eulogized outdated businesses that were just hanging on, wooden houses hemmed in by shiny skyscrapers, and immigrant families struggling to enjoy their lives amid vacant lots and half-empty warehouses.
Delaney has since returned for the sequel, SoMA Now, photographs that are dated almost as soon as she takes them, as lots fill in, construction wraps up, and penthouses lose that new-condo smell. I recently toured the area with the Chronicle’s urban-design critic, John King, and found a neighborhood on the verge of completion, one that aspires to be the apogee of the early-21st-century city and reveals how limited and banal our urban imagination has become.
Software companies didn’t build the transit center. A public agency did, and its mission was old-fashioned: lace the region in bus lines, speed commutes, and stimulate dense construction of a once-neglected area. The station, a $2.2 billion building named for the cloud king, has had some material-world problems. Improperly cut weld holes on a steel girder developed micro-cracks, which blossomed into cracks that were sufficiently un-micro to shut down the whole facility. (In a separate development, construction may have nudged the nearby Millennium Tower into a vertiginous tilt: The skyscraper has skewed almost a foot and a half off its vertical axis, and it will eventually be up to the courts to decide whether that’s because the transit center pumped sucked water out of the ground.) The center’s hopes and dreams lie in its basement, a hardened shell ready to receive bullet trains from Los Angeles, should they — or any trains — ever materialize. Unfortunately, high-speed rail is on a slow track to nowhere, and the concrete cavity might as well be repurposed as an apocalypse-ready command center, a homeless shelter, an avant-garde theater, or a potato cellar.
The future is running late, but the present begins in the branded universe aboveground, where bus commuters pour out of the Salesforce Transit Center down into the plaza in front of Salesforce Tower, or up a level to Salesforce Park. The three-block terminal slithers through the neighborhood, swaddled in perforated white steel that bulges and billows, like a sleeping serpent in a wedding dress. The veils do a good job of screening the structure’s bulk from the street, so that an office and residential district can grow around it without the constant reminder that buses are grinding by at pre-dial-up speeds. Inside, the steel lattice acts like a mashrabiya in Middle Eastern architecture, diffusing light and casting dappled shadows, glowing like a rain-splattered window.
But delicacy is fleeting here. The building is a thing of massive columns, powerful trusses, and brawny girders (the ones that developed those dainty but debilitating cracks). And the architects appear to have decided that when you’ve got that kind of muscle, you don’t have to fuss over details, elegance, color, or atmosphere. These considerations have been outsourced to the artist Julie W. Chang, whose bright botanical designs unfurl across the terrazzo floor.
At ground level, a three-story white-steel tree spreads beneath a glassy dome, drawing the eye from street to sky. Up there, on the roof, is where the humane heart of the center lurks, in a verdant “Jack and the Beanstalk”–style retreat, 70 feet above the sidewalk. At a little over five acres, Salesforce Park is a small insertion into a neighborhood that’s thirsty for green space. (Yerba Buena Gardens lie a ten-minute walk in one direction, Rincon Park and the Embarcadero in the other, and the pedestrianization of Market Street will help, but even so, the area can feel hemmed in and gray.) Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture (the firm that designed the 9/11 Memorial Plaza) crammed an immense amount of variety onto a long rectangular platform. Sinuous paths, paved plazas, playgrounds, lawn-covered mounds, vine-covered mechanical sheds, themed gardens, café tables, swaths of manicured desert, allées of trees, contemplative nooks — a whole anthology of urban gardens squeezes in among the encircling forest of steel.
You don’t get away from the city here: It looms all around, and at one end, the view leaps toward an Art Deco mirage in white terra-cotta, Timothy Pflueger’s 1925 Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building. The elevated landscape has been compared to the High Line, but the analogy is too loose to be useful. New York’s narrow green catwalk threads through neighborhoods, acting as a balcony over the street or a voyeur’s perch with views into low-floor apartments; Salesforce Park is more like the Ford Foundation — a self-contained enclave, a clearing in the concrete jungle.
A few half-hearted gestures connect it to the city beyond. Jets of water spring to life when a bus passes by below, which is entertaining for a few dozen seconds. A gondola trundles up a short incline from the street-level plaza, obviating the need to go inside the building and take an escalator or elevator. But the essence of this place is its surprise isolation, its fragile calm and curated abundance. The relationship between landscape and architecture has been subtly renegotiated here. It’s not just a green roof, a terrace, a corporate plaza, or a pocket park, but a merger of them all. It’s a secret garden that’s raised above the bustle and walled in by towers, a highly managed, thoroughly surveilled civic space that, even full of people and security cameras, feels deliciously private.
It’s disheartening, though, to raise your gaze. Because then you realize that even when the planning planets align, when government functions smoothly, when people throng, money flows, and the economy leaps, when sites materialize that would make any architect’s heart hum, and when public transit replaces clogged gutters for cars — when everything works out for the best in this best of all possible worlds, the result is still a semi-acceptable fistful of oversize glass straws.
The tallest is the 1,070-foot Salesforce Tower, also by Pelli Clarke Pelli (the firm that designed the bus station). The molded monolith with curved corners, tapering at the tip and ribbed with steel, shoots up into the fog, an oversize industrial version of the San Pedro cactus that ornaments the park. But the best of the bunch is Heller Manus’s 181 Fremont, a moody, dramatic shaft laced up by steel thongs and rising to an angular crown. (Appropriately, Instagram occupies part of this eminently Instagrammable building.)
Nearby, Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA contributed the Avery, a stepped glass tower that shares some DNA with its far more interesting, lamentably canceled Manhattan cousin near Madison Square. Chicago-based Goettsch Partners added Park Tower, an all-glass combo (and soon-to-be home of Facebook’s San Francisco office), whose standard-issue sleekness is jolted by a stack of assertive balconies. These skyscrapers make a handsome ensemble, best experienced, perhaps, from a helicopter over the Bay, where the skyline looks unrecognizable to anyone who’s been absent for a few years.
And yet back on the street, this fresh crop of architecture feels already wilted. Even as tech has taken over a handful of cities, virtual reality has become far more detailed, immersive, and sensuous than the physical kind. Maybe that’s because so many trained architects find their degrees valuable in game worlds, or because fast-moving tech executives don’t have the patience to wait around for real-life architecture to get built. And maybe that disconnect is changing. Barry Katz, the Palo Alto–based writer on innovation and design, believes that “architecturally, there is an attempt at softening the distinction between being at work and not being at work. Boundaries are fluid. Landscape creeps inside the compound. There is color and playfulness.” If he’s right about the future, then the new San Francisco arrived too soon.