About GenslerOnCities

What makes cities tick? GenslerOnCities explores the planning, design, and the potential futures of urban landscapes.

Search GenslerOn
Cities Topics
Connect with Us
« What We Talk About When We Talk About Placemaking | Main | Reimagining High School: Envisioning RISE High »

A Place for a Mission: The San Francisco AIDS Foundation Center on Castro Street

Image © Gensler/Jasper Sanidad

This post is part of a blog series related to Dialogue 30, "The Livability Issue.”

The importance of place is often discussed in terms of one’s place in a family or society, and even of one’s place in the universe. How we relate to geography and find our way in either the natural or the built world all deals with our sense of a place and where we belong in it. Place informs us on the nuanced details of how we might find rest, support, supplies and shelter. For humans as well as for other animals, place is incredibly important to our sense of belonging, safety and well-being. It is the importance of place in human lives that led to Strut, the newest site for San Francisco AIDS Foundation, on Castro Street in San Francisco.

The AIDS epidemic that erupted in the early 1980’s first appeared in San Francisco. It was on Castro Street, the iconic main street of the gay community, where San Francisco AIDS Foundation first opened its doors in 1982 in response to the catastrophic effects the virus was having on the population. The Castro became a place for shelter and support in a world that was at first callous to the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic. At the center of the AIDS maelstrom was a small office run by San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Coming Home to Castro

The passage of time has seen great advances in the treatment of AIDS and HIV. People are living longer, better lives, but HIV is still a daily reality and a threat to many. Taking a bold next step toward ending the epidemic in the neighborhood where it first took hold became a target of San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 2012. A site located right across the street from the iconic Castro Theater became available in 2014, and the foundation began its work with Gensler as its architect to create a new place that would become known as “Strut.” The concept behind Strut was bigger than ending new transmissions and AIDS-related deaths: Strut was to be the lynchpin in a strategy that would pivot the world response to HIV from a focus on sickness and disease to one supporting health and wellness.

The project is a co-location of several types of health support offered by the foundation. A licensed health clinic located on the second floor is available for basic health care services, including HIV testing, screening and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections. The third floor of Strut is the home for behavioral health and substance use counseling services that include group and individual counseling. The ground floor offices are the home base for staff that support the programs in the building. Throughout the building are large open areas that are used as waiting areas during the day time, but can become community gathering spaces after hours. Front and back deck areas give protected access to the outdoors for casual gatherings and informal meetings.

Image © Gensler/Jasper Sanidad

Already Impacting its Community

Since the building opened in January 2016, San Francisco AIDS Foundation has provided more than 17,000 HIV tests and screenings for other sexually transmitted infections at Strut. More than 2,000 clients have been enrolled on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—a prevention strategy where HIV-negative clients take one pill per day to block HIV infection. Strut is also a place where social events engage community members and can connect them to comprehensive sexual health and substance use treatment services. One such event, a “PrEP rally,” drew more than 70 people and enrolled several on PrEP that day.

“What’s so important about the work that happens at Strut is that we’re not just focused on ending HIV transmission, but we’re thinking about the health and wellness of our community beyond the AIDS epidemic,” says San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Joe Hollendoner. “The inviting design of our space has allowed us to better integrate our services and broaden the scope of programming so that we can provide comprehensive care and support to our community.”

Designing for a New Reality

In addition to providing the stage for the interventions that will end the HIV epidemic in San Francisco, inside the building, it was important to the foundation team that the building be a symbol of hope on Castro Street. Surrounded by quaint Victorians, the Strut building stands out, by design. Many of the neighborhood buildings were constructed in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As an architectural style, these buildings are sweet and charming, but they reflect the mores of the time in which they were built. In Victorian times, the exterior appearance was often more important than what was happening inside the building. Additionally, decorative trim was commonly added to hide poor quality construction. The built reality reflected a darker reality of the social rules of the time; not only was being different, or gay, frowned upon, but it was illegal to be gay, and those who were gay were forced to live their lives hiding behind a façade that was false. Strut was designed from the beginning to be a beacon of transparency and openness, a direct oppositional statement to hiding behind a false front.

Image © Gensler/Jasper Sanidad

The openness and welcoming façade begins at the street level. The ground floor entry is composed of a large glass opening flanked by two full height panels of reclaimed wood. The panels are meant to represent two wide open doors, a concept the team called “Big Ass Doors.” Their open appearance is meant to say “all are welcome here.” Entering at the ground level, the visitor immediately finds a hearth and casual seating area to the right. The hearth, while functional, is meant to symbolically offer warmth, comfort and shelter to those seeking help. A ground floor reception desk is located near the foot of the grand stair.

The stair itself spans all three stories of the building, and not only connects the various floors to each other, but acts as a unifying and enlivening visual element to the outside. Through the glass stairwell, it is possible to see the lively activity inside the building as one passes by the outside. With community activities happening after hours, the stair, located at the front façade of the building, offers a view of activity both day and night.

Image © Gensler/Jasper Sanidad

Bright, celebratory colors are found throughout the facility, both in the architectural finishes and the furniture. Members of the business and design communities in San Francisco helped gather and donate the materials and furniture for the space. Carpeting throughout was donated as a gift from Salesforce. Ground floor office furniture was donated by One Workplace, and the second and third floor furniture was secured and donated by CRI. The restroom tile finishes were donated by Crossville.

Finally, Strut is meant to be a place of openness, transparency and beauty, a place in which hope and healing are offered to San Francisco.

Andrew Hattori, senior director of marketing and communications at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was a contributing author on this post.

Lisa Bottom is a Principal in Gensler’s San Francisco office and one of the firmwide founders of Gensler’s Not-for-Profit practice area. Her work is focused on law firms and professional practice organizations, and she participates in the Product Design practice area. Her passion is developing a culture of excellence in client service. Contact her at lisa_bottom@gensler.com.