Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Capitalism's Stately Mansion

In this morning's San Francisco Chronicle John King wrote a fascinating review of the building at 185 Post Street, at the southeast corner with Grant Avenue. Since Old Saint Mary's Cathedral is at the corner of Grant and California Street, I figured I would have a look for myself on the way over to today's Noontime Concerts™ event. Here is how King set me up for the experience:

For all the low-key refinement, what's going on at the corner of Post Street and Grant Avenue turns heads: New glass walls encase a six-story masonry building from 1908. The glass is set 9 inches beyond the original wall, without window frames or mullions, so the effect is that of a 95-foot-high display case pulled tight across the past.

Not that there's much to display. The structure was altered so extensively over the years that the authoritative 1979 book "Splendid Survivors: San Francisco's Downtown Architectural Heritage" didn't bother giving it a rating. Nor did preservationists protest when it was to be demolished in 2001.

Plans at the time called for an eight-story Prada boutique designed by Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas with walls of bead-blasted steel riddled by 8,000 portholes of varying size. Instead there was a recession, Prada bowed out and new owner Grosvenor Properties hired the San Francisco office of Brand + Allen Architects to redo what already existed.

Where Koolhaas muscled into the scene with blunt force, designer Koonshing Wong took a self-effacing route, drawing attention by fading away.

Strolling west on Post Street, for instance, you don't even perceive a building; 185 Post St. reads like an opaque sheet, a two-dimensional counterpart to the masonry temples of commerce that were erected after the 1906 earthquake and line the surrounding blocks.

Come closer and 185 Post St. pulls a vanishing act of another sort. The glass turns into a mirror, filled with reflections of such monumentally detailed neighbors as the baroque Shreve Building on the opposite corner.

Now take a look from directly across the street. The reflections fall away and the original structure emerges, an architectural specimen in an elegant jar.

The procession of illusions is due in part to the ceramic "fritting" on the glass, which creates a sense of translucence but is subtle enough not to be a distraction. When it needs to fog the glass, it does; when it needs to evaporate, it does that as well.

I have no argument with this description, but I have some additional impressions. Apparently, the only part of the building that is open for business is the ground floor, occupied by De Beers, nicely described by King as "a beyond-upscale jewelry store," the sort of place that gets nervous when someone as casually dressed as I was saunters in, only to ask if anyone knows about any other tenants in the building or what entrance they use. Nevertheless, I was politely shown the "other" entrance, where a sheet of paper was posted that informed me that work was being done before the only other tenant would occupy their space.

This has an interesting impact on the view that King described. I was able to get at what he meant when he talked about the reflections falling away in favor of the original structure. However, the light was such that one could see through the windows of that original structure, through which one could easily see the incomplete state of all of the upper floors of the building. Thus my own sense of irony saw this as a monument (obviously not intentional) to our current economic crisis: Consumption at its most conspicuous on the ground floor above which all is empty space desperately hungering for occupants. Better to back off and let the very identity of the building become absorbed into the reflections of all of its neighbors. What better metaphor for virtuality and its discontents?

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