Past and present strike a balanceSan Francisco Chronicle
September 15, 2009
The San Francisco Friends School and the SPUR Urban Center look nothing alike: one revives a spacious wooden factory from 1906; the other is a taut glass insert to a tight downtown block.
What they share is a deceptively casual sense of restraint, using resources in ways that are sparing and right. Each project is the work of San Francisco’s Pfau Long Architecture - one of the too few firms in the Bay Area equally adept at restoring historic buildings and designing strong contemporary ones that feel like they belong in this region so protective of its past.
"Both buildings have a similar honesty, I hope - don’t try to make things what they aren’t," says Peter Pfau, 54, who founded the firm in 1991 and shares equal billing with Dwight Long, 49, who joined the firm two years later. "What you see is what you get."
There’s no Pfau Long imprint on the skyline. The firm’s largest efforts to date have a slightly stilted feel, such as the brick warehouse at 475 Brannan St. enlarged by means of two red-metal-clad stories on top.
Instead, it excels at fine-tuned enticements, often fusing old and new. Berkeley Montessori School frames a Mission-style train depot with long modern wings softened by pergola-shaded walkways; at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, expansion space was found by burrowing into the earth, lining grass-roofed labs along a subterranean passage open to the sky.
"Architecture has been in a funny place between trying to mimic the past, and ignoring the past," Long says during an interview in the firm’s office off South Park. The bathroom walls are lined with small photographs of architectural details - not theirs, but anything that one of the 18 employees happens to like. "We should be respectful about adding to what exists, but also proud of what we’re building now."
That’s easy to do with the two recent projects.
The Friends School, which opened last fall, takes a Valencia Street clothing factory built by Levi Strauss and turns it into a relaxed space where the present and past co-exist with rare ease. There are bolted steel seismic braces alongside gaunt wooden columns. The thermal chimneys added to allow natural ventilation rise from floors where the maple planks were oiled but not sanded or buffed in the restoration, so you see the wear and tear left by decades of hard work.
At the Urban Center - home to the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association - everything is sleek and slightly unexpected, from the tightly spaced metal fins that shade the 654 Mission St. facade to the smoked glass that shields the interior fire stair.
But this is contemporary architecture that doesn’t jar; the clean exterior freshens up a block near Yerba Buena Gardens. The interior is relaxed, essentially one long room per floor.
Also on view is the firm’s sharp attention to detail. Look at the ceiling of the exhibition gallery: everything’s exposed, but there’s nothing cavalier in the light web of ductwork, trusses and cables. Above them is a ceiling of off-white panels that absorb noise. They also serve as the underside of the floor above - allowing the gallery to be a few inches higher than a conventional system would allow.
In their own way, the Friends School and the Urban Center are case studies in terms of how San Francisco and other Bay Area cities should grow.
When buildings can be reused, do so with creativity as well as respect. Where there’s a need to add something new, the best additions to the urban landscape have the look of the 21st Century - but fit their surroundings as if they were meant to be there from the start.
"Their work is subtle and quiet, but high quality," says Marc L’Italien of EHDD Architecture, a well-regarded firm based in a former Mission District dairy transformed by Pfau a decade ago. "They do an amazing job of grasping the problem and finding the right solution, rather than putting an identifiable stamp on everything."
See this article in the San Francisco Chronicle