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Life is Urban Again

Image © Gensler

Cities are cool. I find myself increasingly fascinated with how attractive city living is for so many new urban dwellers and how cities try to keep pace with re-urbanization and the push to become more “livable.” With re-urbanization in full swing, the growth of a globally connected workforce, and the proliferation of mobility tools that allow living and working to happen anywhere and any time, we have some choices to make.

Cities will continue to incentivize companies to migrate to urban environments, to capitalize on urban amenities as an extension of the office space, and to build bigger tax bases. These trends beg certain questions. Which cities offer the best core attributes for a safe, productive, and healthy life? Where is the best opportunity for education and culture; professional growth and fulfillment; alignment of values on sustainability, social issues, health and wellbeing? Which place is the most connected with great public spaces, infrastructure, and accessible to the rest of the world?

The world is flat (thanks Tom Friedman). Some cities are taking tremendous strides to recognize the value in maximizing their “livability.” It seems that the nucleus for a good start is a strong and visionary government, a committed and benevolent private sector, and a tolerant and active citizenship. The latter is the key. My partner Dan Winey always says, “You must have the chickens to lay eggs.” Enlightened cities benefit economically and socially from attracting a great citizenry of really smart, creative, and passionate people. We are living during another Renaissance; we are once again in an era of tremendous advancements in art, science, and technology. These are the byproducts of a collective enlightenment among people. They are supported by fast and easy access to information from anywhere in the world. A choice was made to come together in cities because of the value proposition that can only come from the collisions of urban life and networking. So, how do we attract these citizens and make our city the most livable city?

Image © Gensler

It’s all about great urban place making. To make cities livable, we must invest time into reimagining them. We must challenge conventional notions of where and how life’s activities happen; help businesses and governments redefine themselves; and rethink how the spaces (both inside and out) we create can contribute to greater productivity, happiness, and livability. At the neighborhood scale one can look at Gensler’s 5M project, which was all about designing a great neighborhood around how people actually experience the urban realm: from the pedestrian level, from the streets and alleys and from great civic spaces that are accessible and welcoming with a range of diverse uses. Perhaps improvement at this scale is the easiest way to support great urban place making because the footprint is so large. However, you don’t need a huge critical mass or large footprint to be successful in making a great place – after all these are rare opportunities within an existing urban fabric. Therefore, the most likely scenario will be at the building scale.

The 5M Design principles. Image © 5M Project

One attribute of a successful urban campus can exist at the building scale. 888 Brannan Street, a former paper warehouse and battery plant, in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, was such an opportunity. The quandary was what to do with this asset? How can it become exciting and attractive? It really wasn’t just one building; it was a couple of buildings that had been joined together over time, with an abandoned rail line running through it. It had a rabbit’s warren of disconnected spaces, floor level changes, and layer upon layer of intervention over the years. One would describe this as a project with “great potential.”

The positives were a decent history, a fairly recognizable landmark (although its current state was just “that building you drove by on the highway heading towards the Bay Bridge”), solid bones, big central space (often host to high school proms), more than one “destination” tenant occupying the space, and a market willing to invest in authentic space in a urban setting.

888 Brannan's Old exterior. Image © Gensler

The new exterior. Image © Gensler

The latter and the powerful economic force of the Bay Area’s emerging technology sector wanted to see if an urban workplace campus could attract people. But the client also wondered if bringing these people here could help drive the livability agenda. Capitalizing on the progressive workplace notions of the technology community, our design team decided to execute the biggest “hack” of a building in San Francisco to date. We repurposed the place from a former industrial building into a diverse activity based place for work and retail that would be so cool and so fun that it could anchor a new community in the city.

The old atrium. Image © Gensler

The new atrium. Image © Gensler

We stripped away all the layers and celebrated the structure of the building with all its scars and patina. We wanted this place to be authentic and less curated. We wanted to respond to demand from “cultural creatives” for a workplace that provided opportunity for interesting things to happen but was still theirs to inhabit as they saw fit. A quick commentary on historic renovation and restoration has its place, and we did quite a bit here (especially on the façade), while allowing the building to show its age (not decay). The result is also a powerful experience and reflection of history that only can be appreciated from the vantage point of today. A shout out to my partner Collin Burry (our lead interior designer) and team who did a great job introducing materials of equal integrity and distress to compliment but not overpower the rawness of the exposed spaces. To that end, we created replica train tracks in the floor of the lobby; they pay homage to the neighborhoods industrial roots. What’s past is prologue.

The lobby at 888 Brannan. Image © Gensler

What we put back was more about the use and program of spaces and not another “timeless” architectural intervention. We were super careful to not cover it all up again. We wanted to be really smart and specific with “the design moves” we made for both impact and economy. The spaces reveal the character of the place, but also offer comfort, vibrancy, diverse experience, and connectivity to the building occupants.

The potential for success at 888 was greatly improved by the true partnership we enjoyed with our client stakeholder group, whom we collaborated with on a regular basis. Our client Dan Kingsley offered the best summary of 888 when he said, “We wanted to try to create the Fourth Place that Richard Florida believes is needed for the creative class companies. 888 Brannan is still an experiment, but so far our tenants are embracing and using our Fourth Place space the way we envisioned it. The real test will be that space’s ability to evolve as the programming needs evolve, and time will tell if we were successful.”

The old loading dock, an underutilized space in the old building. Image © Gensler

Found Space: We converted the old loading dock into a courtyard where tenants can work or relax while enjoying fresh air. Image © Gensler

In the end, it is a wonderful “project,” but I started this conversation about cities and livability. So what I offer is this one step: We build our network one project at a time and hope that through our thoughtfulness we are contributing to a connected city and that projects like this one are attracting smart, creative, and passionate citizens that in turn drive the livability agenda for us all.

Peter Weingarten
Peter Weingarten is passionate about making great places for people. A native New Yorker living in San Francisco, Peter thrives on dialogue and through his extraverted personality is constantly studying the human condition and how society ticks. His practice as a leader in the development of cities and their architecture allows him to passionately pursue sustainability, urbanity, and the evolution of how people live, work, and play. Contact him at peter_weingarten@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

You mention that "...It seems that the nucleus for a good start is a strong and visionary government, a committed and benevolent private sector, and a tolerant and active citizenship..." And I add that it seems to me that a very committed, super profitable, rapidly expanding private tech sector would be prime candidates for pushing the boundaries of making the city and its support systems livable sustainable and uber enlightened.
02.4.2014 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel

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