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March 25, 2007

San Francisco Defaces Itself

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Philip Murphy cracks a lot of good (and well-aimed) jokes about San Francisco's hideous new Federal Building, designed by the awful Thom Mayne. Gotta love this p.r. passage from the design firm ARUP: The building "will embody a commitment to urban renewal and community spirit while providing a progressive workplace environment." When you hear the words "progressive workplace environment," it's time to run for the hills.

Something to remember when you eyeball photos of the building: Those are your tax dollars at work. Yup, these days that's the kind of architecture your government is supporting -- and thus encouraging.

2Blowhards had some fun at Thom Mayne's expense, and set this kind of thing in a bit of context, here. Back here, I proposed calling these glossy new buildings "chic kitchen-appliance architecture."



UPDATE: A nice elaboration from GK: "Just want to mention that your headline 'San Francisco defaces itself' isn't quite accurate. The federal government is exempt from having to comply with local zoning and planning ordinances, and it's generally agreed that the Federal Building would not have passed here. More accurately, you should say 'Feds deface San Francisco'.

"Some critics, btw, have seen it as a good thing that the visionary federal government was able to bypass suffocating regulation by the people who live around their building."

Yet more proof, as far as I'm concerned, that our elites really have it in for the rest of us ...

posted by Michael at March 25, 2007


"...When you hear the words "progressive workplace environment," it's time to run for the hills..."

You could run a contest; other phrases that ought to induce a flight or fight response. Here's one:

"The merger will produce synergies that will boost shareholder value for all concerned."

Posted by: Don McArthur on March 25, 2007 8:36 AM

That is one soulless building.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 25, 2007 11:05 AM

What in the world is a "progressive workplace environment?"

"Progressive," within the context of the "workplace" means, as far as I know, the institution of racial and sexual quotas, as well as the glorification of homosexuality.

How, exactly, are these ideals expressed in architecture?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 25, 2007 12:18 PM

Er, before you announce your clue-phrase contest, let me point out that wrokplace environment usually means interiors. Namely, how spaces for clerks, government employees PD officers and such are layed out (hint: the marketers claim this layout is good operationally).
You might be right and the architects might deliver less than the claim promises - we just don't know, since you didn't presented the proof. Show me how the T.Maine's-designed office space looks, and if it's inefficient, inadequate to the tasks required of the workforce, hideous in materials and textures, etc - I'll agree with you.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2007 12:29 PM

Michael -- I don't understand your aversion to modernist/postmodern architecture. Is there a theory underlying your aversion, or is it just a matter of taste? I have read your celebrations of Salingaros, and I understand that his work is closely allied with that of Alexander, and as I understand their work, they believe in something akin to a "natural law" governing architecture -- that certain kinds of building, certain kinds of materials and layouts, are more appealing to our human nature. Is that the theory that leads you to disdain architecture such as Thom Mayne's?

The reason I am a little puzzled by your contempt for modern architecture is that, in other areas of the arts, you celebrate playfulness and "sexiness," and with lots of enthusiastic exclamation points and so forth, you seem to respect artists who take chances and have fun. That's a very refreshing attitude to have. But you seem to hold the view that, in architecture, certain kinds of experiments are off-limits.

Why should experimentation and defiance of expectations in architecture be contemptible? What if a completely new, radical type of building were constructed, and people actually liked being in it -- is that not a possibility? Is there something different about architecture and other arts that makes experimentation laughable in architecture?

Posted by: James on March 25, 2007 12:49 PM

OK, I spent some time on your links and here's what I found:
-ARUP is a design firm, but not T. Maine's design firm; as far as it's explained, they might have participated in designing and building systems of the building (HVAC, plumbing, security, electric, communications etc0, but they are not architects.
-From this excerpt from SFGgate, it's clear there are advantages for workplace environment you might actually liked yourself, with your love of getting exercise through walking. Don't you think it good that people are encouraged to walk up to 6 flights of stairs in 3 floors intervals? The building has operable windows, something all office towers in Manhattan are sadly lacking, and vertical glass fins on the North, if I remember correctly, facade that keep interiors shaded, thus reducing the air-conditioning costs.
What's wrong with that?

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2007 12:56 PM

"Experimentation and defiance of expectations" have become so predictable in the arts world that these words might be a synonym for... boring.

What is truly missing in the arts world, now, is respect for and understanding of the place of tradition. In communities like the West Village in Manhattan, tradition has been so blasted to pieces that people live in an atmosphere of complete boredom and nihilism... which they endlessly proclaim to be exciting and daring.

The proponents of the cult of the individual (in other words, the proponents of "experimentation and defiance of expectations") refuse to acknowledge that there is any end to their cult, that it can become boring and predictable and corrupt.

We've reached the end of the cult of the individual. The liberal sphere is awash in millions of morons competing to be ever more outrageous and defiant. To a man, woman, fag and fag hag, these morons are dreadful, tedious bores.

South Park captured this reality more than two years ago in its infamous "Tolerance Camp" episode.

What would be "experimental and defiant" today would be the re-assertion of tradition. The trash heap of the liberal/Marxist/feminist/homosexual worshipping left long ago wore itself out.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 25, 2007 1:26 PM

Oh yes, I didn't supply the link. Sorry.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2007 1:55 PM


What's wrong with it is that it looks like the new headquarters of the EU secret police, it cost as much as a small African country, and it's squatting, like a monstrous alien spaceship sent by some evil and bureaucratic galactic master race, smack dab in the middle of the small and slightly decayed, but generally intact and still attractive, Belle Epoque city that I happen to live in.

Other than that, it sounds great. I love the windows that actually open. And the eerily periodic elevators. This truly is Progress in our age. What will they think of next - gum?

James, the problem with modern architecture is that it is and was generated by a process of natural selection which favors sterility and ugliness. Modern architects display their talent by building the most striking new ugly buildings that anyone could build. This is the inevitable result of a social structure in which architects and architectural designs are selected by committees and bureaucrats, not proprietors exercising their own personal taste. Architecture, as always, reflects the ugliness, corruption and inhumanity of the society in which it exists.

Whereas consider what a positive contribution these very same individuals could make to our society, if their undeniable talents were put to good use in a productive industry, such as Alaskan mineral extraction! But I digress...

Posted by: Mencius on March 25, 2007 1:58 PM

Just want to mention that your headline "San Francisco defaces itself" isn't quite accurate. The federal government is exempt from having to comply with local zoning and planning ordinances, and it's generally agreed that the Federal Building would not have passed here. More accurately, you should say "Feds deface San Francisco".

Some critics, btw, have seen it as a good thing that the visionary federal government was able to bypass suffocating regulation by the people who live around their building.

Posted by: gk on March 25, 2007 4:27 PM

"Yet more proof, as far as I'm concerned, that our elites really have it in for the rest of us ..."

Michael, I think it's time to retire the word "elites" as counterproductive. I think that the elites LOVE being called that. Some unflattering word that still captures their despotic impulses should be used.

Posted by: PA on March 25, 2007 5:26 PM

What happened to Western civilization between the time that San Francisco's beautiful City Hall was built:

And when this thing was put up?

Tatyana is right, though, that interior design is critical too...but a building has a public face that is just as important as the interior. Particularly for a public, government building.

Posted by: MQ on March 25, 2007 6:33 PM

Yes, gk, I too noticed that bit about bypassing local zoning codes. And I loved it - I would prefer demolition of zoning codes for democratic all, not only Feds, but in situation like this I'm tempted to sit on the sidelines and laugh to my heart content. There is a Russian proverb, sorry, don't know American equivalent (and I'm sure there is an equivalent, the situation is universal): "a thief stole a bat from a thief".

Mencius, we were talking about interiors of the building. MB was appalled at the p.-r.phrase that included "workplace environment", and I explained the workplace environment, as it's described in the links, sounds not that bad at all. I see you guys are never satisfied: in hermetic office towers of Manhattan central air is never the right temperature, it is spreading viruses and mold spores, and there is no cross-ventilation. Here's somebody who dared to return (partially, and very wise at that) to the old-and-tried ways - which traditionalists like you should have cheered for, right? - but you still mock him for that.

The building looks crazy to me; but Eiffel tower looked crazy to Parisians, too. Who knows, may be SFans of 2 generations ahead will show it as their city's landmark. And it might just so happen that thanks to all that anti-seismic investment this is going to be the only building still standing amongst ruins of all your beloved Belle Epoque whipped-cream buildings. Not that I wish them ill.

You have paradoxical mind when it comes to other subjects - why on Earth would you cling to "conserve everything" mode in architectural tastes? This is a kind of irrational fanaticism that resembles those Manhattan office towers: hermetic and authoritarian.

Incidentally, Mencius, do you know, in concrete figures, how much the project costs? And do you know how much average new GSA building costs?
I can tell you this (and sure hope I'm not disclosing any public budgeting secrets): when estimator budgets new state/city construction project in New York, (s)he bases it on minimum $500 per square foot, labor and materials. Where labor is approx. 80% of that figure. Thanks to union greed and government regulatory activity.

I wouldn't be surprised that the architect was selected on the basis of minimal fee, as relatively young and lesser-known firm. You gotta love the government - they constantly try to save our money!

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2007 6:37 PM

Its a government building alright. Just look at the people standing around next to the windows, doing nothing. Your tax dollars at work.

Modernism is an extension of the left-wing War Against Nature (in this case, the war against natural forms). While its true that all structures are basically composed of simple boxes, triangles, or arcs, architects of the past felt the desire to pay homage to the natural world and include ornamentation with natural forms--curves, figures, ornate carvings, nature ornamentation, etc. These buildings are designed to be ugly because all the stupid bastards of the past never had the genius to see how innovative designing ugly things was, and what a name for yourself you could make by doing the unexpected, i.e. designing ugly bulidings. Genius!

I second Shouting Thomas' remarks that beauty in the arts is now new and shocking. Its also harder to do than to create ugliness. And because creating beauty is now lost knowledge in the world of academy and the elite circles, it must come from the unschooled.

Posted by: BTM on March 25, 2007 7:15 PM

"Experimentation and defiance of expectations" sounds quite innocent and even reasonable in some of the arts where the stakes aren't as great. Architecture, aside from being the product of an artistic intention, is responsible for creating a dignified setting for the daily lives of people.

Experimentation in architecture can amount to experimentation on the lives of human beings, so it should be relegated to exceptional situations, and not pursued indiscriminately. When architects do so, they impart their fellow citizens the status of guinea pigs.

Traditions are not static, they shift and adapt to the contingencies of time, place, and in the best cases simply to improve. Many times these improvements are the product of experimentation or non-compliance with the status-quo sparked by specific conditions. The difference between that and experimentation within the context of this discussion is that we are dealing with architecture that sees experimentation as its supreme goal, rather than overall quality. This misunderstanding has been disastruous.

Posted by: Ricardo on March 25, 2007 7:46 PM


The cost looks to be about 200 million.

I don't believe in "conserve anything," except in cases where it's clear that the new thing is uglier than the old thing. In fact the old Federal Building was no charmer, either.

But they could just leave the area as a park and rent some damned office space, like every other white-collar profession in the universe. I mean, what, do they need sandbags and machine-gun posts at every desk? Is that what it's come to?

I invite you to consider what American architecture would look like if World War I had never come to the Western hemisphere, and the fascist Progressives had not come to power. In other words, there had been no cultural revolutions since 1907, and the culture that was in power then, had remained in power to this day.

Obviously there is no trace of any such thing. But, since the 20th century has been one of pretty much monotonic cultural decline, what exists already is usually the best one could imagine doing.

Posted by: Mencius on March 25, 2007 10:53 PM

Are you kidding? Government renting office space, like everybody else? Don't you know the people's servants is our most precious national treasure and have to be put first?
No, seriously - 200 mln looks about right. And did you see that architectural AND engineering services, together, were only 10% of that sum? I bet the contractors get much more than that. Compare to any class-action lawsuit, where lawyers're receiving 25-to-50% of the settlement in fees; it's a wonder there are still young people who want to go into the profession, what with the constant public outcry (and you can never please everybody) and mediocre pay...

Posted by: Tatyana on March 26, 2007 12:04 AM

I think it is an interesting experiment.

Which isn't to say that it couldn't turn out to be a failure. But if people like working in it and they do save that much energy, I would call it a success.

I don't think it is as ugly as people say. I kind of like it. SF has a lot uglier skyscrapers. At night, it is lit up with colored lights in a striking fashion (I can't find a photo online).

Here is another article that emphasizes the security angle.

Posted by: joeo on March 26, 2007 12:05 AM


I admire your tenacious defense of Thom Mayne and the Federal Building. I really want to like him and his designs. But I can't.

I think the point that struck me after researching and writing about this building is that the style modernism is on a collision course with faith environmentalism. You simply cannot have a "green" building encased in a glass curtain wall. The air conditioning in those buildings runs from March through November. and in the winter the heat loss is spectacular.

But look at lower Manhattan and all the traditional pre-war New York skyscrapers . . . in fact, look at any great pre-war building . . . they are all 10x more energy efficient than any modernist structure.

They tended to have thick masonary walls and windows that opened. (That's why people had paperweights). They were also more slender and indented than the sheer glass slabs that the "less is more" crowd have forced on us.

Traditionalists like Ernest Flagg and Sanford White were building for natural ventilation and energy conservation because there was no alternative. And they managed to solve this problem with soul-soaring art that was funtional and profitable.

Thom Mayne is attempting to invent something that had already been perfected generations ago but discarded in the name of "progress." But isn't that so often the case. If he weren't so self-absorbed he might have learned something from his elders.

Posted by: Murphy on March 26, 2007 3:14 PM

Did I defend Mayne and his building?
Sorry you came up with this impression. My comments were not about either of them; I can only suggest you reread what I wrote.

Incidentally, I'm interested in your research re: documented glazed facades' heat loss in winter? I want to entertain my boss at work, do you mind sharing it?

Posted by: Tatyana on March 27, 2007 7:38 PM

A typical insulated wall can achioeve an R-value of about R-14 while even triple insulated glass with air space between the panes will only grt up to about R-4.

Posted by: Murphy on March 28, 2007 8:42 AM

on a typical skyscraper not all glass on exterior glazed wall is translucent type (intended use: light gain). Wherever you have floor slabs meeting the vertical of the exterior wall, whole sections up to 3'6"h are of spandrel glass, in other words, the glass is in the role of infill (which could be of number of other materials - aluminum, vinyl, decorative masonry, etc), and the behind it are high-R-rated insulating panels. Wherever you have translucent glass, the R will be 4 to 5, below and above it - R=30.
Glass have number of other properties that make it more cost-effective for exterior skin applications (see this article).
True, in areas with more sun exposure you don't need to have all this light streaming in; you might actually want to have more light control - but for that there exist types of glass with low E ("emissive factor"); this type of glass reflects the UV-rays on outside of exterior wall away from the building and reflects the heat on the inside back into the interior, thus preventing heat loss thru the curtain wall.

Aesthetic considerations are important on all phases of design, but they are not of primal importance to the client; efficient use and maintenance issues are usually take priority. In other words, nobody will buy your design if all your arguments are on aesthetic level; many professionals are involved in making the decision on costly items like building's skin: construction cost estimators, maintenance professionals, materials specialists, etc. Glass seems to be the compromise to all their concerns and interests.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 28, 2007 2:01 PM

So Tat, are you saying that it's not high-fallutin' artsy architects that are to blame for the glass monstrosities, but sensible salt-of-the-earth building specialists?

Posted by: the patriarch on March 28, 2007 3:05 PM

*patriarch, follow the money.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 29, 2007 6:46 AM

As someone who's actually going to work in this building, let me tell you:

1. There is a terrible glare problem in the Tower. Employees are wearing sunglasses at their desks and have beach umbrellas over their computer screens. GSA is going to order reflective screens, which is going to increase the use of artificial lighting. Natural lighting is no good when you're working on computers all day! Duh.

2. The elevators are defective and people are getting stuck for long periods of time. How wonderful to encourage walking, as if people can't decide for themselves what to do with their bodies. How about those employees who CAN'T walk???? Also, if you're stuck in an elevator that only stops at every 3rd floor, it takes a lot longer to get you out.

3. The windows are not operable by the employees. They automatically open and close every 5 minutes and the motors make a whirring sound as they open and close, every 5 minutes all day long. The employees next to the windows are freezing, while everyone else is roasting.

This building proves that elitist architecture and the green movement are anti-human beings. People don't know whether they should walk the stairs or not, people don't know when their window should open or close, buildings should make the decisions for us!


Posted by: Janet Turner on April 5, 2007 10:43 AM

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