SF Gate - Tuesday, November 18, 2014
By John King
Many people will look at 1266 Ninth Ave. in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset and hate what they see — a stark concrete form 100 feet wide and 23 feet tall, cut by four deep and resolutely right-angled bays.
Here’s another way to view it: as an engaging newcomer with tactile warmth. And in an age where buildings are judged on the basis of whether or not they’re “contextual,” this one shows how subjective that word can be.
The broad concrete cube holds a cafe. It extends out to the sidewalk from the four-story apartment building behind it, and neither the base nor the wood-clad upper floors look like anything else on this commercial block that doubles as an entrance to Golden Gate Park. But in terms of what matters most about context to the ongoing life of a city — neighborhood scale and the social fabric — 1266 Ninth Avenue is an ideal fit.
It’s a startling sight from any perspective, and not just because I remember when the site held a mortuary and parking lot. There aren’t many buildings in the Bay Area that announce themselves so emphatically, especially in well-established neighborhoods with low height limits.
The reason this robust arrival doesn’t feel like a gate-crasher is that the visual drama knows its place.
The apartments in the rear top off at 40 feet, the most that zoning allowed when the project was conceived, and they’re the tallest thing on the block. The concrete podium in the foreground is shorter than any of the other dozen or so structures on this side of the street — and since the stack of apartments begins 9 feet behind the concrete box, each makes its own impression.
Invitation to touch
Another deft touch is that the concrete doesn’t extend from neighbor to neighbor: On the edge nearest the park, it stops short to allow an entrance to the residents’ underground garage. The concrete turns the corner and forms a wall along the driveway, ending where the apartments rise in three cedar-stained bays wide enough to allow spacious balconies for each unit that faces the ocean.
None of this is by chance.
“If we were going to make this bold a move, it (the concrete base) needed to stand on its own,” saidSherry Scott of Christiani Johnson Architects, which designed 1266 Ninth for developer Prado Group. “You couldn’t just change materials. You needed a real feeling of separation.”
The dimensions are good planning. The architecture kicks in with the concrete walls that enclose the retail space.
They were framed the old-fashioned way, by pouring concrete between planks of Douglas fir spaced almost 4 feet apart. One row at a time, one level at a time. The method is called “board-formed concrete,” and when done well, as is the case here, it’s an eye-catching throwback to buildings assembled by hand, not crafted from parts.
You see the grain of the wood, smooth patches and knots, the dividing line between each plank. The overall effect is massive — but massive in a good way. Instead of a flat heavy slab, it’s an invitation to reach out and touch. (More enticement: The landscaping by April Philips Design Works runs trumpet vine up the concrete between the openings, adding a constant shift of shadows.)
Add those four oversize entry bays along the sidewalk, and the concrete form stands like some artifact from the industrial past, a sturdy frame rather than a solid wall. The cafe within has a ceremonial scale with 20-foot-high ceilings; one of its bays instead serves as an open dining alcove, partly enclosed but tied to life on the street.
According to Prado Group President Dan Safier, two decisions were made early on. One was to emphasize the tall retail space, which hides two levels of apartments. The other was to splurge on the board-formed concrete walls: “We wanted to set a tone of quality and materiality, so it was important to have something that feels substantial.”
I can imagine a die-hard classicist not being swayed. Why the exposed concrete rather than detailing from this or that era? Why go horizontal on a block where most buildings are narrow?
Sometimes the conservative path is the right way to go: You wouldn’t want a metal orb plopped among the brick history of Jackson Square. But take a long look at the 1200 block of Ninth Avenue. It’s a hodgepodge of nondescript structures erected between 1904 and 2000. No one era predominates. Most of what you see has been altered more than once.
The concrete newcomer at 1266 Ninth adds a new element to the scene, no question. Instead of bogging down in deference to an idealized past, it keeps the Inner Sunset’s story moving forward in a fresh but thoughtful way. That’s the best kind of contextual architecture there is.