Green clashes with design in S.F. tower

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Times Staff Writer

The new 18-story federal building here, designed by Thom Mayne and the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, is hardly short on symbolism or story lines.

It is a hulking, aggressive tower in the heart of a city that has seemed wary of bold architectural statements in recent decades. And it is perhaps the most ambitious of the federal government’s effort, through the General Services Administration’s “design excellence” program, to make new courthouses and office buildings models of forward-looking design.

But the tower is most fascinating, by far, as a measuring stick for green architecture. It shows what happens when a celebrated American architect is compelled -- by his client, by the younger designers in his own office and, maybe, by his conscience -- to embrace sustainability. And it dramatizes a clash between the prerogatives of architectural creativity and the basics of sustainable design -- a clash that promises to be repeated as other architects of Mayne’s generation and sensibility begin to build in a more efficient way.


The new focus at Morphosis on green design “is a giant leap forward for us,” Mayne said during a recent tour of the $144-million building. And in a lecture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last month, he declared that the federal building represents “where the architectural act and the ethical act are fused.”

A more accurate word, to be honest, would have been “feuding.” The building, with its natural ventilation and loft-like, sun-filled offices, includes a long list of green elements to go with some architecturally stunning spaces, notably a lobby that slices upward through the lower floors. But for every architectural decision that makes the building greener, there is another that seems to undercut that goal.

In fact, architects at Morphosis say it probably won’t qualify even for a silver rating -- let alone gold or platinum -- from the U.S. Green Building Council, a benchmark that the GSA aims to meet or exceed in high-profile new construction. The firm blames that failure on a rating system that is out of date and inadequate for judging buildings as big as this one, which covers 605,000 square feet. But part of the problem surely lies in Mayne’s reluctance to temper his elaborate, highly wrought approach to architectural form-making.

The best example of the conflict is probably the system of perforated metal panels that sheathe the tower’s wide southern facade. The panels will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Mayne’s Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles, where they wrap around the whole building and are deployed mostly to achieve a certain monochromatic visual power. Here Mayne uses them only where they most effectively shade and cool the offices, leaving them off the northern facade altogether. The panels are one reason the main floors require no air conditioning.

So far, so green. But when those panels reach the ground, Mayne extends them, in a series of sharply folded planes, out toward the plaza that sits at the tower’s feet. He repeats them on the roof of the tower and atop a free-standing cafe building on the far edge of the plaza.

The folded panels, a Morphosis trademark, are visually dramatic. They are also entirely decorative. (Mayne doesn’t even take the simple step of extending the panels over the plaza to shade the cafe’s outdoor tables.) And they are supported by huge, V-shaped galvanized metal trusses -- a lot of wasted steel for a building aiming for an eco-friendly label.


The conflict at the heart of the building has been brewing for some time. After all, while we have lately prized famous architects mostly for their Expressionism, green design is based on a different set of priorities. It is by definition local, relying on attention to site and climate, where celebrity architecture is global, dominated by firms with a proven ability to stamp a repeatable brand on any parcel of land in the world, from Milwaukee to Abu Dhabi. It rewards clarity and simplicity more than the complexity Mayne has spent nearly four decades perfecting. It requires architects to think as much about balance as architectural drama.

It might seem unfair to criticize one of our most talented architects on that score. Nobody ever complained that Jackson Pollock was guilty of flinging around too much paint -- or that the wood for his frames wasn’t harvested in a sustainable manner. And we have always let architects off the hook for cost overruns, inefficiencies and other basic errors as long as their buildings provided a visceral or virtuosic thrill.

But if architecture, unlike painting or sculpture, is at heart an exercise in balancing purely artistic goals with more prosaic ones -- budgets, gravity and so on -- then green design shouldn’t require extraordinary skills or lamentable compromise. And as architects as stylistically opposed as Shigeru Ban and Glenn Murcutt have shown, it’s entirely possible to combine sustainability with a bracing sense of creative ingenuity.

Many if not most of the world’s leading architects, though, have shown an indifference to sustainable architecture that occasionally bordered on disdain. That lack of interest was especially glaring in Mayne’s case, given his commitment to social causes and left-wing politics. He has always used his buildings to dramatize the tensions and inequities of contemporary society.

A main architectural gesture of the federal building, for example, is a sharp seam that runs across the southern facade, as if Mayne wanted to shred the very idea of bureaucratic conformity or unthinking belief in the power of the American government.

But green design? Not a chance. It was something less skilled, less savvy architects could spend their time on. In recent years, Mayne has been quick to rail against the Iraq War -- forgetting that as an architect the most direct step, practically and symbolically, he could take to temper what he sees as our belligerent thirst for foreign oil would be to design a series of supremely energy-efficient buildings.


Over the last few years, however, a shift has taken place inside Morphosis that mirrors encouraging changes in the profession at large. Younger architects in the firm, such as Tim Christ, project manager on the San Francisco federal building, began bringing an interest and fluency in green design to its projects. (Christ is 43 years old, Mayne 63.) At the same time, Morphosis began building in countries where meeting strict energy-efficiency standards is required by law. In 2002, the firm finished an office tower in southern Austria that includes operable windows, natural ventilation and other green elements that are commonplace in much of Europe.

Morphosis brought those strategies to the San Francisco tower and added new ones. The building uses a more polished version of the skip-stop elevator system that Morphosis introduced in the Caltrans project. The elevators stop only on every third floor and open onto attractive three-story sky lobbies enlivened by large-scale artworks by Ed Ruscha. The idea is to make people walk at least a bit during the day and give them a chance to see and talk with employees on other floors.

While more than 1,700 employees will work in the building every day, there is virtually no parking for them in the underground garage. Most will get to work on BART or on one of the streetcars and buses running along Market Street. The building also includes an attractive day-care center on the bottom floor. Thankfully, it’s painted in bright colors rather than the brooding palette Mayne usually prefers.

In the end, nearly all the best parts of the design, green or otherwise, flow from a single architectural gesture. The site Mayne was given sits directly across the street from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals building, a low-slung Beaux Arts design from 1905. If he and the General Services Administration had been subject to San Francisco building regulations, the Morphosis design probably would have had to take a similar shape.

But because GSA projects can essentially ignore neighborhood zoning, Mayne was free to take the courthouse form and tip it up on its side, creating a tall, thin tower on the extreme northern edge of the site and freeing up space for a large plaza at its feet. The tower’s slender form -- it is only 55 feet deep -- is precisely what allows natural light and fresh air to reach the middle of each office floor. The Caltrans building, by contrast, is more than 100 feet deep at its narrowest point, and rather dismal inside.

The power of that simple gesture is a reminder that the most effective green-design gestures are often the most straightforward. And it makes the exterior of the building, with its vestiges of the old, pre-green Mayne, look all the more mannered and out of date.