The Craig Hartman Interview - Part II

This is the second part of Where's interview with Craig W. Hartman of SOM San Francisco about the firm's Treasure Island redevelopment plan. You can find the first part HERE.


Where: Thanks for bringing up the neighborhood context, because that's exactly what I wanted to talk about next; you've provided my segue for me. The SOM San Francisco site has a description of the Treasure Island (TI) project and it goes into some of the details [of this plan], and one of the terms that keeps popping up in that is "island life." I got a kick out of that, because there's this idea of island life and, traditionally, I think you kind of think of the Caribbean -- you've got the drink in one hand and you're laid out on the beach and there are palm trees. There is a very relaxed and social connotation to "island life"...I'm interested in how you're creating community on this little island, because it is separate from the main city. As much as it has been integrated through transit, it's going to be sort of off on its own in some ways. So how is community built, and how is that urban lifestyle cultivated through the way that the site is designed?

Craig Hartman: That is really the crux of the issue here, and an interesting question, because I don't think anyone can really know what the nature of social and cultural life will eventually be on the island. The idea is to understand the unique culture of San Francisco and to try to find a way to transplant that to this island. And yet the island is a place apart and it’s culture is obviously going to morph into something that has its own character. I think most people would agree that one of the qualities of San Francisco culture is a very strong spirit of inclusiveness. I think there is an ethos held by the majority of the people who live here that accepts different lifestyles, and that an ethos that really honors the public realm; maybe even to give preference to the public realm over private interests. And there is certainly an ethos here that values environmental stewardship.

The social and cultural life of the island will evolve in a way that reflects the values of those who live there. What we are trying to do is to make the place one that provides a very rich set of public spaces that are consciously designed to encourage this idea of social connection and, hopefully, social inclusiveness. There are some very basic, pragmatic things being done about diversity of housing types that will cater toward a wide variety of demographics: of young single people, of families, wealthy people and people who have low and middle incomes. The idea is to make this a mix of the sort one would find in a real city, not an artificial, gated community with a single monoculture.

So we're trying to find ways in the planning of this island and the design of its architecture to enhance those qualities. That's what we mean when we talk about an urban ecology. We need to consider how we [can be] good stewards of the natural environment, but at the same time, we also want to think about the anthropological quality of this place, and that has to do with the culture. So on Treasure Island we are trying to weave the two together into a holistic ecology that brings together the natural environment and human culture.

And yes, "island life" as you suggest, brings Margaritaville to mind, but the intent is to make an authentic place that recognizes its unique place at the beginning of the 21st Century and in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

W: One of the big principles behind public space right now that's really getting a lot of attention is the idea of deliberately designing for a mix of different uses, too. In addition to designing for a large variety of people, you want it to be spaces that are used at all times of the day and night. Are these pocket parks a way of trying to make this -- I don't want to say a 24-hour neighborhood, because that has it's own cheesy connotations -- but was there an attempt to create social spaces that kept this neighborhood going at all times of the day and night, essentially?

CH: Yes and a lot of this is going to be evolving over the long gestation period of the island’s development period. Right now we are marking the basic intentions. As for the design, some of these parcels of land will be developed by various different developers. There will be many different architects involved over time. So all of these ideas will be evolving. Right now, we're trying to set in place a very strong framework that encourages certain things to happen. In terms of the smaller neighborhoods, the idea is that there will be a provision for flexible community space that provides a place for people to come together for various informal activities. These could range from someone setting up a fruit stand on a Saturday morning to providing a place for community gatherings or a barbeque or smaller retail-oriented spaces. Basics like dry cleaners or a shoe shop or coffee shops will be provided within smaller spaces spread throughout the neighborhood parks. This is an experiment that will be tested over time, to see how much and what kind of life these parks should have.

The development will also incorporate retail and entertainment -- restaurants, cafes, boutiques along grocery and produce and other neighborhood serving retail – in concert with the historic buildings along the Marina side, which faces Yerba Buena Island. The intention is to allow the neighborhoods to be fairly quiet places in the evenings with just the right balance of life, while having the high activity entry zone on the southeast corner of the island where everyone, residents and visitors alike, arrive. One of the challenges of broad mixed use is that the developer’s analysis has shown that this island cannot support a significant amount of office space. Therefore, [the plan] is heavily weighted toward residential. There will be some professional office space, but not a lot. I am sure that as excitement builds when the project starts there will be more interest by cultural institutions as well.

W: Let's step in a slightly different direction and talk about the architecture of the buildings on the site. You said that this is going to be developed over a long period of time, probably by different developers with many different architects, so...are there architectural guidelines for what's going to be built, or is it kind of a "design as you will" attitude, or how is that being approached? Because there's definitely a pretty solid aesthetic to the renderings that have been produced so far. It's very modern, with the crystalline towers...

CH: I worked on a series of ideas which we translated into a drawing for an exhibition that Darrin Alfred of SFMOMA and Julie Kim curated for the AIA in September called Street Cred. It was a speculative rendering of one of the streets on TI that does convey ideas I hope will be carried through in the island’s architecture. The drawings illustrate buildings that have a very strong orientation to the street. I worked with Tom Leader on the environmental ideas and you'll notice that the landscape favors a kind of riparian aesthetic that's much wilder, or natural, than what you might think of as usual in more formal urban landscape architecture. It is my personal belief that the defining architectural aesthetics must have an authenticity which includes the issues we have been discussing regarding setting and place and especially recognizes its temporal setting – that is, the beginning of the 21st century and contemporaneous aesthetics. How specific the base developers and the master plan architect can be in terms of the aesthetics of the island is going to be something that will be evolving. From a personal point of view, I am not a great believer in rigid architectural guidelines. As an architect, I've often found them unnecessarily constraining. Often they rigidly define a singular set of ideas frozen at a point in time and don't allow for the kind of contemporary spontaneity that happens when things are built over years or decades.

The architecture of great cities has an organic quality that incrementally develops. So the goal here will be to find a way to encourage a kind of familial overlay but with it variety. The important thing is that all the work be ambitious architecture. To achieve that requires recruiting the best and most talented design architects to work on the various components over time. It should be a rigorous process. I hope I qualify for a piece of it….

W: So the renderings that exist now, where there are generic buildings for the low-rises for the most part, there are the high-rises as well, which certainly have a more distinct look to them -- the main tower is what I'm thinking of, really -- so are those designed to be built as they look here or are those just massing studies or examples of what could be.

CH: Well they are massing studies, but they are inspired by a set of ideas that are consistent with the overall island design. These renderings represent a very clear attitude about the relationship between architecture and the natural environment. The low-rise buildings are designed to shelter public space from the wind. The height and scale are related to the scale of the spaces they define. We are working on making very narrow streets to create a sense of intimate public space and maximize the potential for social interaction. Most of the people on the island, approximately 75%, will be housed in these lowrise homes.

The mid-rise buildings are the ones that are typically positioned at each of the neighborhood parks we discussed earlier. These small towers mark each neighborhood cluster on the skyline, providing an overall sense of identity and place. These towers are intentionally placed on the north and west sides of these parks to allow the maximum amount of sunlight in the public spaces while providing a wind buffer. And the shape of the towers themselves, if you look at the plan, is a lozenge shape or kind of a rounded trapezoidal footprint. It's like a sailboat, with the bow pointed into the wind. We are presenting the smallest face to the west to let the wind slip by the building with minimum disturbance. Tall buildings can create what we call a "sail effect," where the face of the building that is the leeward side tends to lower wind pressure and bring wind down into public spaces. We have positioned these buildings on the island to minimize any negative effects of wind at the pedestrian scale.

Finally, the tall buildings as shown in the drawing are shaped in a way that is meant to convey a very organic aesthetic. The intent is to create towers that might be more aligned with a cyprus or a redwood than with a machine-made object. We are able to do this because our computers today allow us to analyze structures in ways that are much more supple and nuanced than we ever could have fifteen or twenty years ago. Consequently, we are able to create what was shown on that rendering: the form of an exoskeleton that provides for the seismic bracing of a tall building while allowing for a great deal of glass around the perimeter so we can have as much light as possible inside the building.

The shapes of the buildings will be tested further. The intent is to develop a language that reinforces the basic tenets of the island plan. The aspiration should be for a level of authenticity that can serve as an example to inspire those architects who come after us rather than writing down a set of rules that they have to follow. The most critical issue is to achieve a uniformly high level of architectural excellence, not architectural uniformity. This comes back to the need to consistently select the best design architects – and the need for a mechanism or process to make sure that happens over the course of the island’s development. It should be a highly sought-after honor in the 21st century, as it was for example during the last half of the 20th in Columbus, Indiana, to be selected to design a building at Treasure Island.

W: So it's more of a general aesthetic design than the hard and fast architectural code that, actually, the suburbs get a lot of flak for.

CH: Exactly.

W: The one question I wanted to ask to wrap up would be that I read something about this having some level of approval from the city...is it the plan that was approved?

CH: The basic land concept was approved by the TI Development Authority and has been very well received by virtually all stake holders and the public. But the process continues….

W: Alright. So what is the general status of the project right now?

CH: The general status is that is the negotiation process with the Navy regarding the transfer of the land is continuing. But I understand it is coming to a final resolution, so we are now re-starting again our detailed planning studies to take it to the next stage.


Thanks again to Craig for doing this interview. Where is looking forward to seeing this project break ground!!

The Craig Hartman Interview - Part I

Bending the Grid (SOM) (photo credits)

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