185 Post Street

Though it is one of the most important metropolitan regions of the country, the Bay Area is still lucky to have an architecture and urban design critic writing for one of its daily papers. This type of position has been in decline for decades, with fewer big city newspapers maintaining staff to review and critique cultural production. And while I subscribe and enjoy reading it daily, the San Francisco Chronicle is no NYTimes, LATimes, or Chicago Tribune, whose home cities are large enough and their writing serious enough to find it unthinkable that they wouldn't comment on new buildings and projects.

It might just be because the Raiders and 49ers are so bad this year, but the SFChron sports pages are home to some of its most thoughtful and critical writing. But I find their constant rah-rah of Silicon Valley grating, and the cult of personality exhibited in the Food and Wine sections annoying. All of which is a roundabout way of introducing John King's excellent column Tuesday on 185 Post Street. I have my quibbles with his writing; too often he waxes poetic on the urban experience. But when he sinks his teeth into a straight-up architectural critique he can frame interesting issues I hadn't considered and illuminate ideas latent in the buildings and spaces surrounding us.

Working in San Francisco the last few years, I had the pleasure of watching 185 Post Street transform from a dull workaday building into a commercial jewel. Designed by Brand + Allen Architects, the taut glass facade contrasts with both the encased inner structure and the surrounding masonry buildings in a completely compelling way. As King alludes, it is a building begging to be viewed from numerous angles and at differing times of the day, especially at twilight, when its lighting and translucency interplay to remarkable effect.

King mentions a previous proposal on this site by Rem Koolhaas for a new building with a steel facade punched with 8,000 portholes, comparing favorably this work of locals with what might have been. And I couldn't agree more, this building is "every bit as good." He continues, "if not as a work of architectural theory, then as a fresh twist on the preservation" referring to Koolhaas' reputation for enlightening observations on contemporary cities and culture. But here King discounts this building, and at the same time inflates Koolhaas. This is an interesting work of architectural theory, including the theory of preservation. It also references the role of modernism in our post-modern age, and the possibilities for the modern (and post-modern) to co-habitate with and also transform the traditional in the contemporary city. As such, this truly is a theoretically challenging piece of post-modern architecture. Which of course is the kind of architecture also practiced by Koohaas.

Just because Koonshing Wong, the lead designer for the project at Brand + Allen, hasn't written a bunch of theoretical books doesn't make it any less a work of architectural theory. And the theory Koolhaas expounds has always been more about urbanism than the architectural anyways.

Though King laments the subversion of Wong's original idea to leave the brick facade of the existing building unpainted, this was a happy accident. It improved the architecture; the building wouldn't be nearly as "ethereal" with a rough brick facade behind the smooth glass wall. And had the brick been left unpainted, the idea may have been too literal, and thus worked less well on a theoretical level.

As it happened, the brick was first "encased" in a traditional material - paint, before being surrounded by glass, a modern material. Which added another level of reading to this building, strengthening the argument. And making it a joy to behold.

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