I just attended a marvelous presentation by five internationally renowned landscape and architecture teams offering ideas for shaping a 13 acre parkland site in San Francisco’s historic Presidio National Park. The site — virtually new land — extends from the edge of the Parade Ground at the Main Post over Doyle Drive (Highway 101) and down to the Bay at Crissy Field. In this photo you can see part of the Main Post lawn at the upper left and the hillside-hugging tunnels under construction with the temporary roadway looping around them.The drop is 35 feet, with dazzling views over the tunnel tops to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz, and back to the city itself. The goal, according to project organizers, which include the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service, is not only to integrate the waterfront with the historic core of the Presidio and celebrate the extraordinary views but also to create “a welcoming place – inspired by history and contemporary needs – that embraces cultural diversity, creativity, learning, fitness, and fun.” The intention behind asking for proposals was to simulate our collective imagination. That process has certainly succeeded: the standing-room-only-crowd was very enthusiastic. As the moderator, architect and educator David Meckel said, “Don’t think of these schemes as finished designs, look at them as a way to understand how each of these design teams think.” In other words, here are ways to start imagining what could happen here — use these ideas to jumpstart your own vision of what might be possible. Here’s what I found especially evocative.
The Power of Simplicity
West 8, a Dutch urban design and landscape firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York, thought about ways to make the site not simply an extension of the Main Post grid or a connector to the water but something in its own right, while at the same time making the slope accessible. They hit upon a descending oval that’s at once a gently sloping pathway, a central lawn, and a view oriented building arching out of the ground. Here’s their overall plan as it relates to the Main Parade Ground.
The oval is positioned between three key elements — the Visitor Center, the Youth Campus, and the Water Discovery/Wet Lab — and cleverly unites them.
In this aerial view you can see how the oval acts as a focal point for framing the vistas, as a pivot from upper to lower levels, and as a sheltered bowl for picnics and other events.
The building is the landscape, as the rendering of the upper path shows.
The design effectively illustrates West 8’s philosophy to “actively create new ecologies.” This is an ingeniously layered simplicity. I love it!
Edges That Unite
Olin, a landscape design firm based in Philadelphia and working with Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, developed a scheme that revels in multiplicity. It extends the grid while transforming it into a series of U-shaped “Pods” to frame views and focus different activities. It adds a strong cross axis “Runway” leading from the Visitor Center to what looks like the prow of a great ship rising out of the sand.
Olin calls this the “Arc” and indicates that it might rise and fall with the tide — and that’s definitely imaginative! You can see how it forms a red arc in the photo but it’s easy to free-associate with another ark — floating the floating concept, so to speak.
Here’s a view of one side: a path below the prow cleaves it into two sections, while another leads through the marsh — I love how the marsh walk literally puts you in the water.
Architect Tom Kundig is known for designing buildings in a wonderfully seductive “contraption esthetic,” often with key parts that move, like the sunshades at the Arc’s event space shown above, though I wonder how the rest of the Arc would actually work. But it makes me think: Yes, why not make a seaside park that expresses tidal movement! And I think it would be a very beautiful building.
SNØHETTA, a design firm with offices in Norway, New York, and San Francisco, headed a team that developed a series of so called “arcs and strands” to knit the upper and lower sections of the site together and to views and cultural activities.
What captured my attention was their willingness to remove an existing building like the Visitor Center and create a new one in a more advantageous place at the edge of the hill. It’s the triangular sod-topped structure at the center of the plan above. The new location would serve as a true introduction to the site and the Presidio at large by framing the great vista.
This view shows the approach to the new Visitor Center — an abstracted hill rising before you that partially hides your objective and then, once you’re inside or on top, reveals everything — bridge, bay, islands, mountains — at your feet.
Another element is also suggestive: a grand partially planted stairway-street. It could be a great meeting place as well as exercise avenue. I can see tai chi happening on alternate platforms in the early morning.
The team led by San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture, which included representatives of the Exploratorium (the famous science museum), presented a design that turned the hillside and marsh into an indoor-outdoor exhibition concourse centered on a new building called The Observation Post.
The brow of the hill morphs into this glass-walled structure — it’s like a softened and humanized version of the concrete bunkers leftover from World War II that are scattered about the bluffs above the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Observation Post becomes an amphitheater for events and for enjoying views out toward the water and in toward the Main Post itself — effectively turning the Presidio into its own theatrical event.
The scheme retains much of the original Crissy Field character will adding overlooks, way stations, and bridges that provide multiple ways to experience — and learn from — the landscape.
The team led by James Corner Field Operations, of New York City, one of the designers of the famous High Line there, emphasized the curvilinear nature of the site — as if the grid just above it had started to melt and then spill over into the contours of the land below.
Fanning out and over the brow of the hill, in the large concave curve shown above, is the long observation walk, part of what the scheme refers to as “The Point.”
This sweeping promenade has long runs of stair-stepped seating and a sunken railing — so it doesn’t interrupt sight lines.In some areas the walk projects over the hill to vary the processional experience and dramatize important vistas.This sinuous promenade reminds me — in a much abstracted form — of the wonderful serpentine bench railing at the Parc Guell by Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, which James Corner alluded to in this talk.And as at the Parc Guell, there is a building under the walkway. In Corner’s case, however, the views are the ornamentation. The curvilinear Corner proposal strikes me as a kind of alluvial echo of — or call-and-response to — the long straight line of the existing, and very successful Crissy Field Promenade on the beach below. (Photo courtesy Parc Guell).
Now, with so many ideas in each scheme to ponder, as well as the new ideas and refinements that these ideas are designed to stimulate, the task of deciding where to go from here will be difficult but hugely enriching. Bravo Presidio!
All the images in this post except for the photograph of Parc Guell are courtesy New Presidio Parklands Project. The Parklands website offers many ways to learn more and add your own suggestions.