A convergence of money, technology and landscape has given rise to a project that is both understated and remarkable. However, the set of forces, circumstances and personalities behind the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco is unlikely to be matched in the Bay Area or anywhere else.
One unique circumstance is the presence of a former military base – the Presidio – that lies entirely within the boundaries of San Francisco, offering an opportunity for large-scale development in a city that is both “built out” and hostile to major projects. Unlike most military bases, which are barren stretches of contaminated soil, the Presidio is a park-like place with hundreds of historic buildings.
Another hard-to-repeat factor is the role of filmmaker and special-effects entrepreneur George Lucas, who leased the Letterman site from the Presidio Trust to build an 865,000-square-foot complex for Lucasfilm Ltd. and its Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts divisions.
By itself, the act of bringing 1,500 high-paying technology jobs to a city would elevate Lucas to hero status. The creative mind behind Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi went several steps further, however, to “green” the Letterman complex, which opened in July. Beyond the gadgets and renewable materials that characterize the new film and technology studio, the green factor here is a park designed by Lawrence Halprin, the octogenarian master who is probably the most important landscape designer in San Francisco since the Olmsteads. Lucas’s most remarkable act, however, has been to donate 17-acres of his Halprin-designed landscape as a public park.
Given this level of largesse, Lucas might have been forgiven if he had opted for a self-glorifying building, such as a Frank Gehry-type explosion of gesticulating metal, with his name spelled out in halogen lights. The architectural historian Vincent Scully has written about a kind of nervousness or restlessness in recent American architecture, as if buildings were impatient to be noticed. The recent ascendancy of sculptural, gesture buildings has only accelerated this trend.
Something very different has happened at Letterman, however. The design by the San Francisco office of Gensler Architects and DKS Inc. is restrained and peaceful; it has what critics in past ages called “repose”—a largely forgotten quality in 21st century California. The Letterman Digital Arts Center is a set of low-rise buildings in a vaguely historical style intended to complement the Presidio’s genuinely historical buildings. The new buildings have steep pitched roofs and terra cotta tile. Some buildings have flat plaster walls and deeply punched windows; others have walls in red brick panels.
Lucas has been so undemonstrative, in fact, that he decided against putting his name on the thing, deferring instead to the memory of an unsightly military hospital that previously occupied the spot. Some people have been critical of the total size of the Lucas project. They would do well to remember that the hospital was an undistinguished building that was 10 stories tall.
Keep in mind that this act of park donation was anything but passive. It was not a matter of Lucas taking an existing clump of grass and saying, “Oh, you take it.” This park is actually an earthworks built atop an enormous, sub-surface garage for 1,500 cars. Going underground was Lucas’ idea of keeping the site clear of cars, and the execution may have added $10 million to the $100 million total cost of the compound. (The City actually waived an additional 1,000 parking spaces normally required under zoning because of the high rate of transit use expected from Lucas employees.)
More remarkable still is the relationship of the public park to the LucasArt buildings. Most film studios in Burbank, by way of contrast, have the look of armed camps, and the Pixar studio in Emeryville is surrounded by an imposing wall. Here, there is little apparent divide between the park and the buildings, where the security apparatus is kept mostly inside.
Lucas’ decision to hire Halprin for what could be the designer’s last major project in the Bay Area is particularly moving. Halprin is one of the very few landscape architects who are universally known outside the profession. It would be impossible here to overemphasize his influence on American urbanism and the notion of creating parks and fountains out of streets and other non-traditional turf. As a modernist, Halprin prefers abstraction over literalism. This quality of abstraction, combined with a deep appreciation for materials, has allowed him to evoke something like the feeling of nature and natural forces, particularly in places, like busy city streets, where creating the illusion of nature is impossible.
One of Halprin’s best-known masterworks is a series of three linked fountains and courtyards stretched along an eight-block route in downtown Portland. Cities, after all, are only interventions on a natural landscape, and Halprin seems intent on reminding us of forces that continue to operate beneath the concrete and asphalt. While not as spectacular as the Portland scheme – the Letterman site does not call for demonstrative gestures – Halprin has managed to bring a lot of broken rock and waterworks, including a new stream and lagoon, into his new park. As landscape designer for the entire LucasFilm complex, Halprin also insisted that architects preserve the sight lines both to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts, Bernard Maybeck’s early masterpiece, which has its own reflecting pool.
Oddly, the designs of Halprin, who is possibly the most influential landscape architect in America of the past 50 years, seem to be endangered. Skyline Park, a project in Denver from the 1960s, was recently demolished. Portland, in contrast, created the Lawrence Halprin Park Conservancy to refurbish the landscape designer’s projects in that city. Portland deserves praise. But the big roses go to the guy who paid for a Halprin park out of his own pocket and then gave it to the public. Lucas, a filmmaker who seems intent on surpassing himself with each project, has trumped himself with the park in the Presidio.