The Craig Hartman Interview - Part I

The following interview, in which SOM San Francisco design partner Craig W. Hartman, FAIA, discusses his firm's plan for the redevelopment of San Francisco's Treasure Island, was conducted in two parts. The first two questions asked by Where, as well as Mr. Hartman's first answer, have been copied directly from an email exchange. We then switched to a telephone conversation, which begins here with Mr. Hartman's second answer. The interview will be posted in two parts that do not correspond with the change in conversation methods, but rather split the text into two even halves.


Where: As big-ticket and high-profile as SOM's proposal for the redevelopment Treasure Island (TI) is, it looks like it belongs on its site in the way that all great projects do; from what the renderings show, it's the kind of development that, when finished, could become a part of the city in a way that that makes one wonder what the place was like before the project was built. But what's most fascinating about TI is the fact that, even in a city with such incredibly rich architectural and cultural traditions, the site seems to have lacked traditional contextual cues. So what was the starting point for designing of this development?

Craig Hartman: The starting point wasn't a question of aesthetics – or even architecture. The question was what have we learned, collectively, about intelligent forms of human settlement that should be applied to this place? What are the possibilities when a community is developed as a singular idea as opposed to incremental growth? Can we conceive a holistic urban ecology that goes beyond sustainability – sustaining existing conditions - to be regenerative? Can we plant the seeds of an ecology that brings together stewardship of the natural environment, diversity (not only human but species diversity) along with social and cultural vitality and what kind of urban and architectural form would support these aims? In short, given the chance to start from tabla rasa, what might a 21st Century neighborhood representing the values of San Francisco look like?

The setting is an inversion of [what] might be typically thought of as urban context. The site itself is synthetic - a recycled manmade artifact in which the earth's topography is an artificial flat plane and the structures, for the most part, conceived as temporary shelter. The island was built contemporary with the Bay Bridge as a manmade extension of Yerba Buena Island. Some of Treasure Island's fill came from the tunnel cut through Yerba Buena. The island's first wave of architecture was the temporary fantasy created for the 1939 International Exposition and the second, also intended to have a short shelf life, consisted of the structures created to accommodate the Navy's occupation in World War II.

So the real "contextual" influence was the vast horizontal plane of the Bay, the City of San Francisco skyline to the south and the drama of the weather pattern sweeping through the throat of the Golden Gate and across the island on a daily basis. Wind, fog and sun are the determinants, along with the physical reality of the subsurface geology and the desire to create a place that is compact and walkable - highly accessible to mass transit, culture and urban amenities on one hand and a variety of open space on the other. To achieve this required an interweaving of low-rise and tall buildings, a variety of open space typology and a fine grain of streets and pedestrian pathways.

W: I know that "context" has become something of a dirty word...or at least a word that has sort of lost most of its meaning in architecture since no one can really seem to agree on what it means. This is lamentable, I think, since the concept itself has been forsaken for a semantic argument, and sometimes it feels like the whole idea of a buildings responding to the sites on which they're built gets waylaid in the process. At any rate, the strength of the TI plan is that it draws from its surroundings without trying to mimic them. One of the most interesting things about the plan is the way that the wind patterns were used to determine the organization of the buildings and the open space, and how the grid would be canted. (The architectural romantic in me loves the concept of a "city shaped by the wind"). I'm interested to know how the other intangible factors that you brought up -- sun, fog, geology, even the cultural values of San Francisco -- helped to define the physical environment in the project.

CH: I agree that context doesn't have a lot of currency in architectural discourse at the moment, and it's not really surprising because contextualism in the [1990s] got branded as a style, an architectural style, and it became a crutch, as these styles often do. Specifically in the case of contextualism, in my observation at least, it became a code word for a lukewarm architecture that tepidly reflected history rather than authentically addressing its place, and I think the outcome of that was that originality and innovation really took a backseat to timidity. So I agree with that point but I also would suggest that the work we're doing at Treasure Island is based upon context, but context that has a larger meaning and is more broadly considered. Context might be considered both as physical and cultural, and the physical landscape includes the natural as well as the built environment.

The other point that I would make before getting into the specifics of context for TI is that by now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we've learned some lessons from the past about forms of building, the effects of consumption and the nature of human habitation. Buildings consume the majority of energy production and emit the majority of the carbon dioxide in the world - and the second [largest source of these things] is our cars and transportation. Add those two things together with sprawling, consumptive patterns of development and we get the environmental crisis that we have today. So clearly, if we address the questions of the way we settle and the way we move we can begin to address our major climate problems. All those things were part of the consideration of context for this island

W: You talked earlier about what you referred to as a "regenerative urbanism." How does TI take architecture that step from sustainability to actually being a regenerative urban place?

CH: Well that would be, perhaps, a hopeful term rather than an absolute metric. I think most environmentalists would say that it's very difficult to make an urban environment truly regenerative because "regenerative" would suggest that you're not sustaining merely current conditions but, through the work that is being produced, you've actually initiated a mending or healing of the environment. Treasure Island has been inhabited by the Navy since the early 1940’s. Their use of the island has been very pragmatic, based upon the most expedient and efficient operational pattern of the time. Militaries throughout history have not exactly been noted for their gentle use of the land. Like perhaps most of us, the Navy was not very mindful of consequences of certain material use, the way that rainwater runs off the island into the Bay and not really mindful of the energy that is consumed, because all of those resources were thought to be plentiful and... [Searches for the right word]

W: Self-replenishing.

CH: Exactly. And we now know that all of these things have a finite quality, or that they are part of a system that is recycled continuously. So what we tried to do here is to take this manmade island and bring it to a level that it had never achieved before. This includes naturally cleaning water that strikes the surface when it rains through bioswales in the earth, purifying it by a natural means. It also includes minimizing water that is consumed on the island, maximizing recycling of water that is used and being certain that all water that does make it back into the Bay is clean. [We are also] generating produce on the island with organic farms and in the process, making a place that supports a diversity of species that includes not only a healthy environment for humans but also supports the widest possible variety of others; birds, animals, reptiles and so forth. It's meant to be an incremental example of the way that we can coinhabit urban spaces with nature and with a wide and varied organic diversity – people, plants, animals. And this urbanistically, the goal is a vital human social and cultural diversity.

W: Im interested by the way that you talk about integrating the two halves of the [built environment] and the natural environment because there's a lot of public space on the island in your plan, and the density of the built areas is really high which allows -- I think -- more than half of the island to be left open, right?

CH: That's correct.

W: And I thought when I was reading about it initially that it was really interesting that nowadays [in] most developments the centerpiece will be a mall or a commercial district, and it's always retail, retail, retail, kind of like a drum beat. What I thought was really interesting about TI is that most of the public space is not really oriented toward commerce but more toward...natural settings. Was that something that was [done consciously]?

CH: That was absolutely a guiding principal when we got into this. We had the opportunity of coming into this project relatively late in the process in terms of the design. There had been a previous design for the island that was based upon a lower density [with] housing spread out across the island and a kind of greensward that wound through the middle. It wasn't meant to be suburban but I think that was the outcome. My colleagues and I at SOM were asked to join the team when an additional development entity was added to the team and after the project had gone through a lengthy public review process in which many issues had been raised. We joined an existing team that included SMWM, architects and planners and CMG, landscape architects along with an array of high level engineers including civil and Arup who focused on sustainable engineering and transportation strategies. Also added at that time were BCV architects who focus on retail and Hornberger Worstell who focus on hotels.

There are many stakeholders and interested parties whose opinions a perspectives must be considered in any San Francisco project, and especially one of this scale, prominence and importance. There are official agencies specifically set up to govern and critique the development, beginning with the Treasure Island Development Authority and the TI Citizen’s Advisory Board along with City Agencies such as the Planning Department and the Department of the Environment and various California State jurisdictional bodies. There are also advocacy groups and concerned citizens. A consistent concern shared by all was that the future of this island needed to be based upon sustainable urban principles. So pretty late in the process, only about a year ago, when we got involved with this we benefitted, really, from what had been a lot of critique -- very constructive critique, I think -- by the community, and that really helped. It gave us the ability to have some leverage in the process. The development team was very much aligned with these principles and wanted to make it happen.

Perhaps the most important concept we brought to this is the making of a very compact urban space focused on mass transit and aquatic mass transit -- the ferry. We repositioned...the ferry key on the west side [of the island], as close as possible to San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal as opposed to the back side, where it had been proposed. Then [we worked] to really densify or compact the housing through the selective use of tall buildings placed to focus density for social purposes or for ease of access to transit. This concept allowed us to have the great park.

The park is different from the parks of the 19th and 20th century, to a certain extent, in the sense that it has multiple uses and characteristics, from natural and wild to cultivated and urban and is not only recreational but also has pedagogical and productive elements. There is a structured recreational area, but structured recreation requires a lot of irrigation, so that is also compact and designed in a way that it can be multi-use. We also worked on making parts of the island productive – a 20 acre organic farm that visitors can actually walk through and experience as a “farm to table” pedagogic tool. Then vast amounts of [the green spaces] are simply wild lands that are shaped to allow natural systems to operate, like tidal pools that support a diversity of species types. So that was a guiding goal here: to minimize, as much as we possibly could, our ecological footprint, and maximize the environmental potential.

W: I thought it was really interesting that, in addition to there being a lot of it, it doesn't seem like the [green space is] just tacked on. It's worked all throughout the project and sort of integrated throughout the entire island, and I thought one of the most interesting ways that manifested itself is in the rotated grid and how the landscape is used as a buffer for the wind. That struck me as really interesting and I was wondering if you might talk more about that.

CH: That's a very good observation. This island is a beautiful setting -- an unbelievable setting -- so the views from the island are extraordinary. But it also suffers the brunt of all the major weather coming in from the Pacific, right through the Golden Gate passage. There are very powerful photos of the fog coming through that passage and sweeping across the Bay but you have to spend a lot of time on the island to really understand the effects of constant wind. It's a very uncomfortable feeling so at the very beginning the idea was to make this place habitable in a comfortable way and to look to nature and traditional agrarian techniques for ways creating calm and sheltering occupied spaces.

The first thought was to simply create the quality of sand dunes on the westerly side that would reflect the wind upward. We found that that does have an effect, but it's a fairly micro impact. And we are doing that - creating a shaped topography on the west side that creates localized calm areas. I think its very interesting, especially the way Kevin Congerland of CMG developed the idea as a clearly manmade geometry that operates as dunes and swales do in wild landscapes.
But in the urban areas, the neighborhoods, the technique we found most effective was to place the buildings themselves so that they sheltered the public spaces on the leeward side. Through work with RWDI, the wind consultants, we found that there is roughly a 15:1 relationship between the height of an object and the distance from that object that one could expect relative calm on the leeward side.

The first and most obvious fact is that the wind is coming from the west and the island is tilted upward to the north by approximately 32 degrees off of due north. So that creates this angle that you see as the main organizing structure in the island's grid plan. We have turned all of the major streets in that direction and have placed the buildings so that they are creating buffers along that edge. Borrowing from agrarian traditions in which wind rows – trees - are used to create sheltered areas to protect croplands which you see in our own country and also in Europe. We've simply taken this idea and extended it through the urban space to the open space as a wind buffer. So, on one hand, its nature and on the other, architecture, that does the work the work of creating calmed and sheltered public space. To further this concept, we staggered the streets in the other direction so that we're not creating wind channels.

This shifted, or bent grid, orients the principal public spaces and streets to the south, bringing the maximum amount of sunlight directly onto these spaces for the maximum hours of the day. That's a very important thing, to have sun in these spaces, because the wind and fog is so prevalent, resulting in cool temperatures most of the time. The fortuitous thing is that the 32 degree angle, directly to the south, also opens view corridors directly onto the city of San Francisco. It creates a really powerful connection between the island’s public spaces and San Francisco’s skyline.

W: So the view down those streets looks straight at the city, then. The view down the street would kind of frame San Francisco.

CH: That's correct. The angle frames the city, and brings high south sun on the island streets. Perhaps the other point worth mentioning is your comment about how the green space is woven through the urban, the wild and the organic, agrarian parts of the island. That was a very conscious idea, to create a purposeful set of varied and interwoven public spaces including an art park, urban spaces, organic farm and wild lands, all linked to the windrows. One of the most important for the social life of the island is a series of small urban parks we have cut into the neighborhoods. These are small -- approximately a half-block -- in size. With their scale and the placement, the intention is to create a social nucleus or focus for smaller-grained neighborhoods throughout the larger community. So the neighborhoods and the island’s social life become an integral part of the island’s environmental and ecological agenda.


Tomorrow Where will feature Part II of this interview, in which we delve into the social and community aspects of the TI design, as well as the architecture. Don't miss it!

Bending the Grid (SOM) (photo credits)

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