GOOD Design: Rethink SOMA

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (July 24, 2012) – On Thursday, July 19, Berkeley Professor and Studio Urbis Principal Renee Chow gave a presentation, before the Planning and Historic Preservation Commissions at City Hall, on contemporary design in SOMA. Prompted by the challenge of how civic leaders “balance a desire for contemporary sustainable architecture in the historic South of Market neighborhood,” Rethink SOMA provided suggestions for future projects and how to best utilize the neighborhood’s block structure of large thoroughfares and slender alleyways in order to enhance the experience of those who live, work and travel through the area.

Chow outlined three core ways of thinking about urbanism in SOMA: identity (the unique character of a place); legibility (how a place is navigated); and fabric (how the different parts of that place fit together). She discussed the identity and existing fabric of its large and small lots, eclectic buildings and ways of providing “density and character to the streets.” Using Yerba Buena Lofts as an example of a project that adds to the neighborhood’s fabric, Chow described the benefits of including street-facing entrances that provide vitality and promote outward activity. Because of SOMA’s large block structure, alleyways could perform a vital role as connectors.

To work toward a more legible neighborhood, Chow suggested using architectural forms (differing depending on numbered or named streets) and explained the ways that neighborhood use and navigation in other cities – such as Boston’s Back Bay – use building characteristics and form to signal entryways into different streets and to indicate a direction in relation to natural landmarks (in Boston’s case the nearby Charles River). She noted that there was opportunity in SOMA’s street corners, a number of which are either vacant or have a small building sitting in a much larger space.

In addressing the challenge of how to balance contemporary architecture in a historic neighborhood, Chow instead identified ways of thinking about architecture and the urban environment— instead of how a building looks, how does it perform? Does the individual project add to the city as a whole? And how can change add to the neighborhood’s heritage? “Urban tradition and heritage are in SOMA’s stucture,” she stated. “Its architectural history is a continuum, with every building an expression of its time and culture.” The Planning and Historic Preservation Commissions had largely positive feedback, and greatly appreciated Chow’s point that historic context and contemporary design are not mutually exclusive.

Chow’s presentation can be viewed in full on the Center for Architecture + Design’s website. Visitors are encouraged to weigh in with their thoughts on Twitter at #rethinksoma.

Rethink SOMA was sponsored by AIA San Francisco, National Endowment for the Arts, LEF Foundation, and GOOD Ideas for Cities.

About GOOD
As more people around the world move into urban environments, increasing attention has been placed on the functionality of the city- the way it works and how it can work better. For the past four years, GOOD and the Center for Architecture + Design have hosted events asking designers to present solutions to “intractable urban problems.” (On September 27, 2012, three design teams will present design solutions to three different problems at One Market as the conclusion of the Architecture and the City festival.)

About the Center for Architecture + Design
Founded in 2005 by AIA San Francisco, CADSF enhances public appreciation for architecture and design both locally and internationally through exhibitions, lectures, tours, a film series and other programs that aim to reveal the richness of the design arts.

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