News
01.30.2008
Protest: John Parman
NY gets fresh Nouvel while SF gets Pelli's leftovers. How come?
Pelli's Transbay Tower.
Courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli/TJPA

I winced when I saw the Times’ headline, “Next to MoMA, Reaching for the Stars.” Jean Nouvel’s new 75-story tower alongside the Museum of Modern Art reached back to Lyonel Feininger for inspiration, finally realizing his vision of an expressionist tower. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Cesar Pelli’s safely office-like MoMA housing or Yoshio Taniguchi’s recent, buttoned-down expansion. “To its credit, the Modern pressed for a talented architect,” Times’ critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote, but he went on to praise Hines, the tower’s “remarkably astute” developer. “Hines asked Nouvel to come up with two possible designs… and made the bolder choice.” That’s Hines in New York.

This fall, Hines also won the right to develop the Transbay Tower in downtown San Francisco. Pelli’s proposal for the transit hub component of the project is well done, but the tower is a version of his International Financial Center mega-tower in Hong Kong. As usual for Hines—they really are “remarkably astute”—Pelli was a smart choice. The Airport Express station that serves Hong Kong’s financial district anchors the twin-tower IFC complex. From a credentials standpoint, that’s valuable experience. Plus a tower that’s up-and-running is easier to price, even with differences in construction, than one-offs like Richard Rogers and SOM’s competing finalists. Armed with that knowledge, Hines played its trump card, offering up to $350 million for the land—more than twice what the other two developers were prepared to pay. That’s Hines in San Francisco.

Hines is Hines—the same smart operators, east and west. Given what they’re proposing for New York, blame for San Francisco’s less-than-stellar tower falls somewhere else. 

Jokingly called Dean Macris’ last erection, the Transbay Tower benefited from the recently-departed planning czar’s determination to fulfill his long-time vision of a city skyline marked by three accentuated “hills”—two real and one manmade. This is the same vision that gave us One Rincon Hill, the first in a two-tower wonder by Chicago’s Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Compared to it, Pelli’s proposal is definite progress. 

A lot of people have questioned the logic of Macris’ idée fixe, but that’s another article. The question here is how a competition that was advertised as being all about design proved to be all about money. Not that this is surprising, but—in light of promises made—it feels like a bait and switch. And if I feel this way, imagine how SOM feels!

I wasn’t privy to the jury’s deliberations, but a few things stuck out along the way. In the initial interviews, Norman Foster failed to appear and his team was eliminated. While architect no-shows don't go over well (confirming Woody Allen’s maxim that “85 percent of life is showing up”), their reaction struck me as a surefire sign of provinciality. Another sign of that was the dearth of interesting architects in the mix.

Again, I didn’t make the rules, but at roughly the same time that the Transbay schemes were being unveiled, Thom Mayne won a competition for a new tower at La Défense in Paris that clearly breaks new ground. This was another reason to wince, since a second major work by Mayne might finally put San Francisco on the architectural map.

Of course, Calatrava made the cut, only to have a falling out with his developer. Perhaps he was chosen, like Icarus, to exemplify the dangers of the creative edge. That left SOM, whose tower—while drawing on a Chinese precedent—alone showed the originality that the competition promised. With its blend of structure and sustainability, it presented a credible future for tall buildings in the earthquake-prone west coast. Plus, it was new, and that seemed to be what was wanted. (Unlike SOM’s, Richard Rogers’ peculiar tower was a throwback to his high-tech, frame-and-infill days, but vastly toned down with no real gain in use value, especially as office space.) SOM’s tower fit the bill, if the object had been to build a tower in San Francisco that broke the mold. In retrospect, no such luck.

The Transbay Tower reminds me of the new east span of the Bay Bridge, a chance squandered to do something on a par with the Golden Gate. San Francisco rises to its own occasions with about the same frequency as its earthquakes—maybe less frequently. In that sense, there’s no real mystery about the latest outcome. Still, it makes me wince.

John Parman