Downtown’s Will to Form

June 6, 2011

Architect Alex Lehnerer writes about the “Opposition Drawings,” the tool that emerged in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and was used by supporters and opponents of the proposed high-rises.


Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 01

San Francisco troublemakers. © Alex Lehnerer.

Every self-respecting North American city needs one—including San Francisco, of course. One simply can no longer do without a high-profile financial or central business district. Finally by the 1960s, the “inspiring drama of the free enterprise” required a suitable and solid representation in every larger US American city.1

When it came to the development of a typical American downtown, San Francisco in this period was among the most sensitive and hesitant communities. Tall buildings stood in direct competition with tall hills, with the outstanding landscape qualities of the Bay Area and its fine-grained development contradicting the image the citizenry had of their town. And so San Francisco took its sweet time before allowing its high-rises to go forward. Between 1930 and 1958, only a single tall office building was constructed, and only in 1959 did the city acquire its first modern high-rise, the Crown Zellerbach Building on Market Street.

Policemen and Trouble Makers

Without criminals, there would be no police—and the same is true of fires and the fire department. Both institutions work simultaneously preventively as well as via intervention. Precedential cases originated by these troublemakers are constantly necessary, as they lead to sensitization. Such villains then compel the introduction of preventive measures designed to eliminate the emergent problem for the wider community once and for all.

In the San Francisco of the 1960s, a quartet of such troublemakers suddenly stood together in close proximity, generating public annoyance in the financial and business district: the Holiday Inn and the Transamerica Building were regarded as “too bizarre,” the Embarcadero Center as “too large and too bulky “and the Bank of America Building as “too big and too dark.” Nonetheless, it seemed almost impossible to charge the Bank of America with ignorance of its context—contradicting such an argument were the 1,500 bay windows on its façade.

The anti high-rise movement then active in San Francisco had definitively lost the battle against the four offenders. All that remained was public defamation. The Transamerica Building had an especially hard time of it. Its appearance was said to be incompatible with an attractive downtown. Regarded as embarrassing and uneconomical, it was soon nicknamed “The Egyptian Embassy,” and was illustrated in newspapers and magazines wearing a dunce’s cap.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the wrath of activists was directed principally against purportedly ugly, unwieldy, excessively tall and poorly sited office buildings.2 One recipient of ill favor was US Steel, when it proposed erecting a 150 meter tower on the waters of the Bay. Newspaper articles caricatured the building as an ungainly “steel giraffe,” one that palpably disturbed the site’s sense of balance and proportion.3

But the controversy gave rise to a remarkable tool. Since the ranks of the high-rise’s opponents contained a few architects proficient in drafting, so-called Opposition Drawings4 could be prepared. On the basis of a bird’s-eye view seen from the direction of Bay Bridge, architects and supporters of the US Steel Building attempted to demonstrate just how well the structure was adapted to the existing urban context. The building’s opponents now provided a perspective from the opposite direction, from Telegraph Hill. These images showed how strongly the US Steel Building would plunge the proud Bay Bridge into shadow—that is to say, how a private office building would blight a public icon.

In the end, in 1971, the San Francisco Supervisors (SUPES) granted permission for the construction of the US Steel Building on this site, stipulating that it would have a height of only 53 m (175 ft) at most. This deployment of counter-perspectives functioned as well in the case of the 20-story Haas Towers project—against which no objections were raised until the lawyer had it immortalized from a number of different perspectives from Russian Hill. Virtual buildings were now regarded as having evidentiary status, and the discipline of urban simulation was launched. The more scientific and the more complex the methods used to generate these anamorphic images, the greater the public’s preparedness to regard them as objective. The first setting for such activities was located directly behind San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, at the Environmental Simulation Laboratory at UC Berkeley, founded by Donald Appleyard in 1972 and containing fabulous apparatuses, gigantic city models, and swiveling endoscopes by means of which one could navigate at eye level through models of the city.

Real Simulation

Even such an ingenious simulation cannot replace a personal or real interaction, that is to say, a 1:1 experience of the critical object in urban space. Switzerland and its cities are well aware of this fact. Ideally, one drives or moves through the city physically and in real time.

In 2007, it was possible to contemplate a 126 m (413 ft) tall steel scaffolding that had been erected in the former industrial quarter of the Swiss town of Zürich (Kreis 5) from close up. Next to the Hardbrücke, its quartet of steel profiles marked out the edges and complete height of the future Swiss Prime Tower. According to law, each Swiss building project must be rendered beforehand in its actual planned dimensions through a so-called Baugespann (structural mockup). The ordinance includes the construction of dormer windows, tool sheds, but also of high-rise buildings. For a specified period of time (two months), the citizenry, assuming it is willing to exercise a minimum of imagination, has the opportunity to visualize the project within its three-dimensional boundaries and to discuss its urban integrity. Thereafter follows an act of participatory democracy, the voting in a referendum. In the case of the Swiss Prime Tower, however, the full 126-meter tall scaffolding would not have been necessary. For reasons of proportionality and safety, the city would have preferred a “preview” measuring just a fraction of that height. Since they were planning to erect the tallest building in Switzerland to date, the clients spared no expense and effort in erecting this spectacular simulation, spending more than 100,000 Swiss francs for purposes of prestige and advertising.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 02

The virtual envelope becomes reality for immediate public review: 126 m tall “Baugespann” of the future Swiss Prime Tower, Zürich. © Alex Lehnerer.

Little Big Plan

The desire not only to simulate visual qualities, but to actively and preventively guide them as well was manifested beginning in the 1970s in San Francisco’s General Plan, and finally in the same city’s 1983 Downtown Plan, which was the work of planning director Dean Macris.5 The plan reduced building heights and building bulk on the basis of a floor area ratio and geometric bulk definition. It envisioned landmark protection status for 266 important buildings, and required the preparation of a shadow study in order to ensure that new buildings would permit adequate sun and light to reach the surrounding streets. Whole streets and their views acquired quasi-landmark status.

All of this is familiar already from New York. Of interest is this manifestation of San Francisco’s collective taste and the yearning for visual attractiveness. This approach called for the architectural treatment of high-rise roofs with hat-style structures in order to avoid the so-called “refrigerator look” (i.e., a monotonous sequence of androgynous glassfronted crates).6

Cynical commentators soon joined the fray. Allan Temko, architecture critic with the San Francisco Chronicle, commented that the plan was more concerned with aesthetic matters than with the effective restriction of growth and density in San Francisco’s downtown:

Nor would I trust Macris’ chief assistant on design matters… His contributions on the Plan would not require architects but milliners. So we’d put these party hats on buildings, as if we didn’t have the most colossal dunce cap in the world on the Transamerica Building.7

It was calculated that by the year 2000, the plan would in principle permit the construction of more than 24 million sf (2.2 million square meters) of new office surface, in particular to the south of Market Street. This meant growth rates similar to those registered in the years prior to the plan’s adoption. Such figures recall the reproach of “over-zoning” that had been leveled against New York’s 1916 resolution. As far as San Francisco’s citizenry were concerned, Dean Macris’ plan was simply too weak, and represented an inadequate planning for exercising control over the “vertical earthquake” taking place in San Francisco’s downtown. Resistance was so great that in 1985, the city’s Board of Supervisors (the municipal governing body) endowed the plan with the force of law, but with an addendum, a limit on the maximum building volume per annum. To begin with, this was set at a maximum of 950,000 sf for the entire city—a “growth cap” lower than the square meters covered by certain individual high-rises in New York City.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 03

San Francisco’s specific bulk areas. © Alex Lehnerer.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 04

Method of measuring bulk. © Alex Lehnerer.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 05

Guidelines for each bulk area: a tower’s max. diagonal and lateral dimensions. © Alex Lehnerer.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 06

Map of streets with excellent views that deserve protection, San Francisco. © Alex Lehnerer.

Mas issue conflict downtowns will to form 07

Anti-refrigerator look. © Alex Lehnerer.

What San Francisco was proposing here was definitively “the first quota system for city planning.”8 Alongside the “beauty contest,” designed to determine whether the “hat” on the high-rise tower corresponded to the prevailing ideal of beauty, decisions would be yielded to the discretion of a review panel, which granted building permits to the numerous applicants and filled the annual quota. Administratively, it is only possible to get a handle on this process when a multiplicity of additional guidelines are introduced, for example those regarding the economic relevance of a specific project for the city. One year later, in 1987, Proposition M reduced the annual quota by 50% to 475,000 sf, making high-rise development in San Francisco virtually impossible. Even where this was not the case, it was charged that (to cite The New York Times critic Paul Goldberger) “they have all turned out to be tame examples of the post-modern style, cautious little buildings that struggle not to offend.” Goldberger goes on to criticize the high degree of determination exercised through the required review process:

San Francisco no longer has planners, it has design czars. The city government through its planning department and the public through referendums have become the controlling forces in determining what happens in downtown San Francisco. They go far beyond the normal mandate of setting out the basic outlines of growth through zoning laws, as planners do everywhere else; here, they determine the specific design of individual projects, and ultimately decide whether or not projects can go ahead at all.9

The “hats” set on the towers, however, were intended to counteract another downtown tendency familiar under the term Skyline Wall Syndrome. As speculative projects controlled by similar marginal conditions and land costs, office high-rises tend to have similar numbers of stories, and hence similar heights. In many cases, such utilization does not approach the potential legal limit, but instead corresponds to a purely economic calculus: how many times must the building lot be multiplied into the heights in order to be profitable while avoiding excessive costs, for example, for vertical accesses? This Economic Height often lies well below the maximum utilization set by law, and by falling below it, disempowers the potential for architectonic shaping offered by such legislation. And the developer of a neighboring parcel determines the height of his tower on the basis of similar calculations. The height differences between buildings deemed desirable on the basis of aesthetic criteria, then, can be administered on the basis of general rules only with great difficulty. And if the maximum possible utilization is set somewhat below the economic height that prevails in a particular period, then that standard functions as a height limit, once again generating a uniform sequence of buildings.

A genuine predicament for the city. A successful, that is to say, interesting and dramatic skyline with its peaks, valleys, and jagged canyons, is very difficult to shape consciously. Lowered height limits, once again, generate uniformity, while also restraining inner-city growth in undesirable ways. Helpful instead is a constant radical revision of building laws and maximally turbulent pricing developments in the land and real estate markets. One indispensable ingredient, of course, is a local, egocentric corporate headquarters that functions like a mountaintop cross, so to speak; another is a collective architectonic expression on the part of office towers that shifts rapidly over the years.


This essay has been republished with permission from the author from the book Grand Urban Rules by Alex Lehnerer published by 010 Publishers in 2009.

1 Earle Shultz and Walter Simmons (1959), “Offices in the Sky”, 7.
2 Chester W. Hartman (1984), “The Transformation of San Francisco,” 269.
3 Donald Appleyard and Lois Fishman (1977), “High Rise Buildings Versus San Francisco,” 87.
4 Ibid.
5 Hartman (1984), 274.
6 Ibid, 273.
7 The City of San Francisco (1983), “The Downtown Plan—Proposal for Citizen Review.”
8 Paul Goldberger (1987), “When Planning Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing.”
9 Ibid.