AIASF Explores Grand Architectural Visions

by Jean Schiffman

AIASF presents exhibitions that explore what might have been on they City's skyline.

Imagine this:

A "promenade of modular architecture" that includes vertical farming as well as crafts and agricultural markets, zero-energy transportation, parking lots, water recycling systems and public plazas--all located on the old, soon-to-be-unused eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

A human-made lagoon in the center of the fancifully named Treasure Island, with a ship-museum docked nearby.

The United Nations at the foot of Twin Peaks, complete with skyscraper and illuminated globe, recalling a trademark of the 1939-40 World's Fair. (The United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945, but ultimately John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $8.5 million to purchase land in Manhattan, and the rest is history.) A 1998 design for a Grateful Dead museum in San Francisco that shows a quasi-dance hall/amusement center.

These alluring architectural and city-planning concepts, and many more, never materialized. However, enlarged sketches (both hand-drawn and digitally rendered), as well as some models, are on display this month at the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIASF) in an exhibit called "Unbuilt San Francisco: Grand Visions." This is the central exhibit of AIASF's 10th annual Architecture and the City festival, which includes tours, lectures and films. Grand Visions is also one component of a collaborative "Unbuilt San Francisco" event comprising five separate exhibits.

The other four are "The View from Futures Past" at the California Historical Society and neighboring San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR); "Public Spaces" at the San Francisco Public Library (which includes a rendering of a "Suggested Illuminated Water Effect of a Monument and Cascade at Twin Peaks," proposed by Bernard Maybeck in 1933); and "Ambition and Imagination" at Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley, with, among other designs, one for a residential resort on what are now the ruins of Sutro Baths. All five organizations will display parts of their archival collections and will offer a variety of companion programs such as panel discussions and lectures.

This is a particularly rich opportunity for San Francisco residents and visitors to contemplate the past, present and future of the city: to wonder at the imagination and foresight of the featured architects, to preview works-in-progress destined for completion within the next few decades, to observe social and political trends from an architectural perspective and perhaps to sigh--or chuckle--over intriguing ideas that, for various reasons, were never adopted.

The unrealized plans displayed in AIASF's "Grand Visions" are grouped under the subtitle "Dreams Deferred"; another section of the exhibit, "On the Boards," showcases plans for projects that, although they are still "unbuilt," are currently underway.

The "Grand Visions" collection of elaborate models, plus blow-ups of the various sketches, reveal the architect as artist, says AIASF executive director Margie O'Driscoll. The display, as a whole, is one of beauty, vision and even the fantastical, she says, and parts of it presage game-changing possibilities for the city in terms of style and scope.

Projects in development range from two of the earliest scheduled for completion--the much-anticipated SFMOMA expansion with its flexible gallery spaces for live performances, and a 450 Hayes residential-and-commercial project in the neighborhood once occupied by the Central Freeway (both to be finished by 2016)--to projects with longer trajectories. Among the latter are the new, five-block Transbay Transit Center on Mission Street that includes housing and child care facilities and a rooftop park (slated for completion by 2017), and a five-acre, mixed-use Mission Rock Park that will accommodate baseball fans as well as facilities for residents and office workers (2025). A Treasure Island upgrade--not a lagoon-and-ship attraction, as it turns out, but rather a plan for several neighborhoods plus offices, forming a sense of community, as well as "sustainable strategies": wind turbines and solid waste diversion--is scheduled for 2020. And Parkmerced's bland rental housing tract is to be transformed, between 2020 and 2030, into a community that encompasses jobs, more green space and energy-efficient housing units--in fact, America's first net-zero carbon community, according to the projected plans.

O'Driscoll and AIASF program coordinator and co-curator of "Grand Visions" Emi Stielstra say that in terms of to-be-built projects, unifying themes are about creating new definitions of communities and about multi-use structures. "And building vertical communities," adds O'Driscoll--that is, knowing who lives above you and who lives below you. Residential and commercial projects that were stalled four or five years ago due to financing problems are now moving vigorously forward, the curators say, as seen by the record number of cranes right now on the city skyscape.

Gratifying as it is to know of the improvements that are in the works, it is especially tantalizing to regard some of the more lavish "Dreams Deferred" plans. For example, in 2008, when the History Channel invited Kuth Ranieri Architects to envision San Francisco 100 years hence, the firm proposed a 12-mile seawall at the Golden Gate, "regulating ocean, delta and bay water levels" and connecting to an off-shore metropolis called "Airport City." And a proposed Alcatraz Center for Indian Life was a response to the 19-month Indian occupation of Alcatraz, 1969-1971; it would have converted the island prison into a livable community for Native Americans (the U.S. government ended that occupation, turning Alcatraz into a national park tourist attraction).

Other so-far-unrealized ideas seen in "Grand Visions": "Folding Water," a levee system to regulate rising sea levels; desalinization stations attached to the Golden Gate Bridge; a 10-story Prada building at Union Square (photos of its model, in Rotterdam, to be displayed); a huge plan to repurpose "existing structures to create vertical farming towers, rooftop gardens" and, in an envisioned car-free environment, to turn parking garages into underground farms. A full-color blow-up of a 2008 sketch imagines transforming old military batteries along the coast (some dating back to pre-Civil War) into wind turbines.

"Grand Visions" juxtaposes its "Dreams Deferred" renderings, piece by piece, with photos of what actually exists on those sites today.

"Unbuilt San Francisco" grand opening Sept. 6, 5-9 p.m., Annie Alley, between 678 and 654 Mission St.rand Visions, AIA San Francisco, through Oct. 25, 130 Sutter St., 362.7397,

The View from Futures Past, California Historical Society, Sept. 6-Dec. 29,