No CAMPing Here?

Courtesy Gluckman Mayner Architects

On July 14 an overflow crowd presented impassioned public comments to the Presidio Trust—a U.S. government corporation established to preserve and enhance the former military post—regarding its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) proposing options for the future of the Presidio’s central, 120-acre Main Post district.

The audience came largely to address the Trust’s controversial recommendation in favor of the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (CAMP), a modern design by New York firm Gluckman Mayner that would house the extensive contemporary art collection of Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher. Other plans for the area include a 125-room guest lodge on the eastern edge of the main parade grounds, an orientation center, and an addition to the existing Presidio Theatre.

In a raucous event that extended well past midnight, members of several groups came out in opposition against the CAMP proposal, including the Presidio Historical Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the nearby YMCA, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the Green Party. The California Office of Historic Preservation has also spoken out against the plans. Due to the large number of speakers, the public comment period was extended until September 19. A second public session will be held September 15, and a separate meeting related to traffic and parking issues is set for July 28.

Some expressed suspicion that the project was an "inside job" and a foregone conclusion, alluding to the Trust’s membership being dominated by prominent San Francisco real estate and business leaders, and to Don Fisher’s role as a former Trust member. Others criticized the scale and stylistic compatibility of its minimalist design in the historic context of the Main Post. And more brought up the perceived reversal of land use policies outlined in the 2002 Presidio Trust Management Plan (PTMP), and to the possible reconsideration of the Presidio’s status as a National Historic Landmark District.

Supporters of the scheme, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, emphasized the importance of the art collection and the generous financial opportunity for the Trust, which would receive a world-class institution from the Fisher family. The cost of the 100,000-square-foot museum has been estimated at around $150 million, which includes restoring one of the adjacent barracks for classroom and administrative uses. In addition, the Fishers would donate $10 million toward the cost of reconstructing the parade grounds. Newsom also expressed confidence that public concerns could be addressed in the review process.

A motivating concern for the Trust is the federal mandate that the 1,491-acre Presidio be financially self-sufficient by 2013, and that the park subsequently fund its future operations. Among the limited set of proposals presented to the Trust through the RFP process, the CAMP design, the Trust has indicated, appears to be the only viable option that would ensure a continuing draw for the park.

An alternate scheme for a History Center presented by the Presidio Historical Association (occupying the same site as the museum) was accompanied by a basic schematic design and program proposal with no collection or funding source identified. The design itself, still fairly vague, features a Spanish-style, pitched-roof building.

Missing in both the SEIS and the furor of public comments was any serious critical discussion of Gluckman Mayner’s building design, a contemporary interpretation of the site that emphasizes the formal geometries of the Main Post. The vertical mullions of the curtain wall echo the white-columned arcades of the surrounding military barracks, while the horizontal striations of the masonry walls and filigree patterning of the shading louvers deliberately recall the texture and scale of Presidio barrack construction. The orthogonal face of the scheme gives a defined terminus to the parade grounds, which will be restored from their current status as a sprawling parking lot.

Design architect Richard Gluckman admits that early press images raised questions about the design, appearing as an aloof white box isolated from its context. Subsequent studies reveal careful attention paid to situating the building within the architectural context of the Main Parade.

The Trust and National Park Service’s 2002 Cultural Landscape Assessment of the Main Post noted that the "site’s overall historic integrity is grounded in a rich but fragmented record of continuity and change." In distinction to the History Center’s historical palette, Gluckman argues that "using a contemporary architectural language to differentiate the new structure from the old respects the integrity of both."

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