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The SF Federal Building

Written by Ashley Reede   
Wednesday, 16 May 2007 07:57
An interview with Tim Christ of the architecture firm Morphosis about their design of the new SF Federal building.

Words: Ashley Reede
Pictures: Nic Lehoux

A couple weeks ago, I went swimming at a hotel pool with some friends. While this is not necessarily a notable event, it is worth pointing out however, that I had a perfect view from the rooftop pool of the new Thom Mayne and Morphosis designed Federal Building.

If you don’t know, San Francisco is incredibly stringent about what can and can’t be built here. As a city, it prefers to stick to the status quo and go with buildings that blend in, making it extremely difficult to get progressive architecture approved (does anybody remember the Prada v. San Francisco battle?). I decided I would talk with one of the world’s top architecture firms (side note: people call them “starchitects!”) and discuss the building of the new Federal building with Morphosis Principal Tim Christ, who oversaw the project and who is currently working on the Paris Phare Tower.

Can you tell us a little about the aesthetic Morphosis was trying to create on this project?

The project was not conceived as an 'aesthetic act' per se, but was approached as an integrated design problem that took into account a deep study of the site and its relation to the city, a strong reevaluation of what constitutes the quality of the workplace, and an aggressive attitude to conservation of energy and natural resources. This led the team towards the natural ventilation design and the choice of particular compositional strategies for the building, inside and out. As such, the appearance of the building is derived from the performance criteria that we established at the beginning of the process. An example would be the exterior metal sunscreen: it was conceived and composed as an integral part of the natural ventilation system for the building.

Unlike other recent architecture projects in San Francisco, such as Herzong and de Mueron's de Young Museum, the new Federal Building is located in area where re-vitalization has been a fleeting but main goal for the past decade. Was this a consideration in the design?

The GSA has a long-standing policy of developing public projects like the federal building in neighborhoods that have suffered from entrenched social and economic problems. The south of Market location was chosen, in part, because the population of federal employees and other users of the facility were seen to provide some stability to the neighborhood. This is less about what used to be termed 'gentrification' than an approach, which seeks to bring public amenities to an area, which has been traditionally underserved. An example would be the large public space in front of the building, which is now part of the fabric of the neighborhood. In fact, the building includes a number of public amenities [childcare center, fitness center, conference rooms and auditorium, public restaurant on the plaza, art throughout that is accessible to the public] that were developed in order to enhance the connections of the project to the neighborhood.


For a city renowned for its architecture, San Francisco is notably stringent about new construction - making it close to impossible for new architectural point-of-views to be represented throughout the city. Do you think the new Federal Building will help open eyes to the feasibility of a mixed-landscape? And what does Morphosis hope the lasting impact of this project will be on San Francisco's skyline?

Hopefully, the project will have a positive impact on people's perceptions of their city. We consider San Francisco to be one of the most beautiful of cities, anywhere, and we feel an enormous sense of responsibility for helping to bring the architectural character of the city forward with respect to design. The federal building is only one of a number of new and very progressive buildings in the city, including the De Young Museum and the new Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park by Reno Piano.



Continuing on that on idea, The General Services Administration's Design Excellence program has been credited for encouraging/saving a diverse architectural landscape through the use federally commissioned buildings; some as the last project of that era had called this building - would you agree?

I hope not. We are very encouraged that the Design Excellence Program is continuing and architects are commissioning that new work across the country. I don't believe that the federal building represents 'the end of an era.' We aren't aware of anything that would indicate that to be the case. If you haven't seen our other work, it would be worth looking at the federal courthouse in Eugene, OR and the NOAA headquarters in Suitland, MD, both projects that we recently completed under the same GSA initiative.

There has been a good amount of conversation regarding the use of "green" design and construction. While most applaud the use of the 50-50 mix of Portland cement and blast slag to reduce green house gases and the requirement to use seventy-five percent recycled materials, some question the long-term functionality of the absence of air conditioning on floors 6-18 and the use of "stop and skip" elevators to promote personal health and productivity. Can you clarify the vision behind this?

The natural ventilation design and the dual elevators in the building will prove to be a long-term benefit to the health and well being of the occupants. New buildings and concepts sometimes take time as they are adopted; humans are generally resistant to change. In the US, our commercial buildings consume approximately double the energy of our counterparts in Europe, largely because owners, architects, and engineers in our country rely on outdated ideas with respect to space conditioning and lighting in buildings. As architects, we have a responsibility to canvass all of the available technology and innovation out in the world and bring that knowledge and research to bear on our work. It is imperative that architects begin thinking of themselves as part of the larger network of resources.

How does James Terrell’s permanent light installation fit into the overall concept on the building? Did Morphosis or the GSA commission this piece?

Mr. Turrell was chosen through the GSA's Art and Architecture program; he is one of six public artists included in the building. Morphosis was part of the committee that selected the slate of artists. He conceives of his piece as a changing installation of light that marks the passing of day into night, working at the scale of the skygarden location, as well as the scale of the city. The skygarden itself is a public space within the building, accessible to all. Similarly, the huge artworks by Ed Ruscha were located in the 3-story elevator lobbies within the building, to maximize public contact with the artwork.



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