V20, a building by Kerman Williams architects on Valencia, which deviates just slightly from the square-bay-window motif of new modern buildings. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Why does everything new getting built in the Mission look like it’s made of earth-tone Legos?

Planning codes, costs, and opposition, suggest a few of those in the architecture know.  

Planning regulations prevent egregiously out of place structures like 20-story round towers from being plopped into the Mission, says San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King. But developers interested in preventing any slowdowns in the process is also a restraining factor, he said.

“They’re going to wrap it in whatever they think will attract the eye of potential renters or buyers that the planners will allow,” King says.

“So that’s why, on Valencia street, to varying degrees, all those buildings kind of look like they’re trying to… I  hate to get into the lazy cultural characterization … but you get all these condo buildings that are kind of designed like they’re trying to appeal to the 28-year-old tech worker who just got a lot of money and wants to hang out on Valencia street.”

Hill and Valencia Streets.

Architect Anne Cervantes also attributes some aesthetic trends, particularly when it comes to remodeling Victorians, to youth.

“I don’t know why, younger people come and they’re obsessed with this modernism, and have to paint the buildings black with red doors,” she says.

But the invasion of the boxes can’t be blamed purely on wealthy youngsters. The Planning Department, while not necessarily requiring specific aesthetics, does seem to set the stage for them.

Zoning generally determines height limit, and planning does have guidelines for the size of a building, says Orrin Goldsby, an associate and project architect at Kerman Morris. The firm designed the V20 building at 20th and Valencia Streets as well as the remodel of the New Mission Theater, now the Alamo Drafthouse.

The code gets pretty specific: “The planning code has prescriptions for the square bays [windows]. There is allowance for angled bays, but they tend not to look particularly nice on contemporary buildings, so that’s why you will see a lot of the square bays,” he says.

According to some architects, while communities can slow a development down, their involvement can also mean getting a more interesting building.

17th and Capp Streets.

When it comes to working on public housing, “I have the community give a take through the beginning of design all the way through the design process, so they have ownership of the building,” says architect Ann Cervantes. “A lot of people don’t do that.”

There’s another tech factor, and it’s not the buyers: How architects draw has changed, says architect John Lum.

“The advent of CAD [computer-assisted drawing] and 3D has clearly influenced the design of our buildings, and you can see that very very clearly in some of these multiunit buildings that do look almost like CAD renderings,” he explains.

Community buy-in influences the look of what is produced. Some of the city’s most lauded new developments have gone up in Hayes Valley, where community groups were heavily involved in the decision-making process.

“[There was] this land kind of in the city’s control, and neighbors who said, ‘we want cool, contemporary buildings that have a fresh new look to them, and we want 50 percent affordability when you add everything up,” King says. “What you’ve seen in Hayes Valley is a number of good architects hired by developers looking to do buildings that will get some attention. They see it as, ‘it’s worth it to me paying higher fees to hire these guys or this woman, because it’s going to help me get through the process.’”

John Lum, an architect whose offices are in the Mission District, says he is part of a discussion between the local chapter of an architecture group and the developers who worked in Hayes Valley. King points to buildings like 450 Hayes St., 400 Grove St., and 8 Octavia among others as examples of buildings that don’t look “pressed from a mold.”

26th Street.

“The community got involved and did not say, ‘housing shouldn’t be built’ nor ‘density is bad.’ It came with an enlightened viewpoint. In the Mission it’s different,” he says, pointing to the proposed Mission Moratorium on market-rate housing.

Often, buildings are opposed because neighbors find them too tall and don’t like the idea of a flood of newcomers who will compete for parking. Or tenant advocates who fear the gentrification fallout of new high-end housing being built oppose the project wholesale. Aesthetics aren’t really the point in those cases.

“People are so invested in their community in San Francisco, since community is so politically charged. That protectiveness often works against surprising, interesting architecture,” King says. “In the Mission, in terms of the housing being proposed, I don’t think that the look of it really matters. It’s a gentrification fight. The big fights over the different projects are very much having to do with a sense of displacement, the sense of who will be in those buildings.”

That is the stated concern of anti-gentrification activists, who are often wont to ask, “Who is it for?”  King refers to a massive development waylaid at 16th and Mission streets after years of opposition as an example of a building where the exterior is the least of people’s concerns.

“If the developer wrapped that up in adobe and clay tile roofs, it wouldn’t make any difference. There’s no premium to think, hey, can I get a design that will be in sync with what people want?” King says.

Other neighbors have been known to give the feedback, “it’s out of character.” That can be a reference to anything from facade materials to shape of the building, but most often, it’s about size, or “massing.”

19th and Valencia Streets.

Cervantes cites the example of a building at the corner of Mission and Cesar Chavez streets designed by Christiani Johnson Architects, which houses a Walgreens on the corner and condos above. Varying blocks of color and insets in the outer walls, as well as a soft curve on the corner, make it “respect the scale” of its surroundings, Cervantes says. But of course architecture is subjective. Lum disagreed, voicing some distaste about the materials included at the corner building.  

And trying to make things fit in by copying what’s already there doesn’t seem to be the answer either. King says trying to make new buildings blend in by  imitating existing architecture was more popular in the 80s and 90s, but has gone out of style. Goldsby says the firm he works at stays away from that kind of thing.

“When architecture is brand new, we tend to try not to do false historicism,” Goldsby says. Plus, the number of units still has to be enough to make sure the expense of the building is reasonable and, as Goldsby says, “Cramming a large building program into Victorian shell can be difficult.”

Rather, it’s about context.

“I believe in contextualism, especially when you’re dealing with the rich fabric of San Francisco,” Cervantes says. “I see it almost like an archeological site, you can see the layers of time on a building.”

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  1. Laura, I don’t always agree with your point of view, but I really respect you as a person/jounalist. When folks call you on something, you are wiling to admit and fix which is a breath of fresh air. Especially in this day and age. You are going to go far in life and I wish you the best. Keep up the great work!

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  2. What I cited as an example of contextualism respecting the scale of the street I cited Dan Solomon building on Cesar Chavez Street owned by Mission Housing Development Corporation. When I talked about modernism with black paint and red doors it was in reference to Victorians. When I talked about the new arrivals (not young people) it was that I didnt know why people wanted to put a modern glass and concrete next to a Victorian..What I said from 20th south the Victorians did not burn in the 1906 Earthquake and that it is the richness that makes this neighborhood unique. You asked me why so much of the buildings are made of steel concrete for multi family housing..mu response for life safety issues…This was the start of our conversation…I didnt think it would be the basis of a debate with incorrect information given to the other architects. What is surprising, Laura, is that youndidnt mention my approach to design is to work with community thru the design process in public sector architecture not the private sector. Also the Mission District, specifically the Latino Community, sees Modern architecture as a symbol of gentrification, for example La Vida on Mission Street.

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    1. Let me see if I can address your concerns.

      Thank you for clarifying that your comments about working with the community referred to public housing projects, not private – I’ll add that.

      Regarding the reference to scale: Looking at my notes, I see you did talk about Dan Solomon’s building on Cesar Chavez and Mission. But I see we did also specifically discuss the building described (the one with the Walgreens) in terms of respecting the scale of the neighborhood. Both seemed like good examples, but there were more details in your description of the one I ended up using.

      I can see how the quote about youthful taste and black boxes could be misconstrued so I will clarify that you were referring to Victorians specifically.

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