The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1949] The Two Publics of San Francisco

United States

Imagine yourself in San Francisco. It is April. You have just left the recently opened Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center after a tour of its breathtaking collections. Despite all that you have heard about foggy San Francisco, it is a bright clear day and the blue sky stretches out wide above you. You look across an open plaza of ordered London plane trees to the San Francisco City Hall. Its gold-leafed dome sparkles in the afternoon sun. You take note of its neighbors: Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, and the State Office Building. You look to your left and see the new San Francisco Main Library. Though modern, it nods in recognition to its surroundings with its granite skin and updated Beaux Arts details. You are in a true civic center that brings together cultural, governmental and judicial activities.

After standing there for a few moments, your attention shifts from the powerful buildings to the people around you. There are many patrons entering and exiting the Asian Art Museum. On the surrounding sidewalks, you notice suit-wearing business types. There are students dressed in their chef whites from the culinary academy located a couple of blocks away. There are some people loaded down with booksperhaps intent library patrons, or students from the Hastings School of Law around the corner. You also notice people who seem bedraggled. Some have large shopping carts piled high with assortments of clothes and cans and other unidentifiable objects. Some are clustered in small enclaves, while others are set off by themselves in the plaza across from you. Some are sipping from paper-bagged wrapped cans. As you scan the plaza more attentively, you see that along with kids playing and businesspeople lunching, there are people sleeping on the grass, with their bags of possessions tucked protectively under their heads. These are just some of the thousands of visible homeless people that live on the streets of San Francisco. After viewing the 16th century Ming Dynasty Ceramics and the 9th century Indian sculptures, you are especially startled by the schism of the scene: such great poverty side by side such architectural wealth.

The role of the architect in creating socially valuable and significant spaces exists within a greater network of citizenry, politicians and patrons who all contribute to the judgment of what is valuable and what is not. There seldom is consensus and the process is messy. To propose that architecture can embody simultaneously the social values of one place, a particular culture and universal human concerns is to assume that social values within a place (for instance within San Francisco) are homogenous. This is an incorrect assumption.

After years of extensive remodeling and new construction, the stately Beaux Arts building that was the San Francisco Main Library from 1916 until 1996 has been transformed into the Asian Art Museum, which shared its former home in Golden Gate Park with the de Young Museum. Designed by the Italian architect, Gae Aulenti, the new Asian Art Museum is the first of four major museum projects underway in San Francisco to be completed. All four projects have internationally heralded architects as lead designers. A mile east, within a block of the San Francisco MOMA, are the adjacent sites for the Mexican Art Museum by Ricardo Legorreta and the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind. Three miles west, at the previous site of the Asian Art Museum and de Young Museums in Golden Gate Park, a new de Young designed by the firm Herzog and de Meuron is under construction.

These four museum projects in San Francisco have been directly affected by the publics will exercised through voting and donating. For instance, of the $160.5 million required to fund the new Asian Art Museum, $52 million came from public bonds. A proposal on the municipal ballot in 1996 to provide public bonds for the seismic retrofit of the de Young Museum failed to garner the two-third-majority vote required for passage. But money has been raised otherwise through private donations, large and small.

Similarly, the public has expressed its will regarding the issue of homelessness in San Francisco. In the last election (November 5, 2002) a proposition, Care Not Cash passed with 59% of the vote. Authored by Supervisor Gavin Newsom, Care Not Cash is a response to the increasing homeless problem in San Francisco and will eliminate most cash payments to homeless individuals and replace them with guaranteed services. Opponents of the proposition assert that Care not Cash is an attack on poor people and as an alternative, Supervisor Tom Ammiano authored Proposition O, Exits from Homelessness which proposed the creation of additional homes and services. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported post-election day: The win for Proposition N and failure of Proposition O come during a time when San Francisco voters are flush with frustration about the city's intractable homeless population and its potential impact on the tourist industry (11/06/02). The implementation of Care not Cash comes at no additional cost to the city since it will redistribute existing funds, whereas Exits from Homelessness would have cost $24.5 million to implement. Both Newsom and Ammiano are running for mayor of San Francisco in the next election.

This contentious issue illustrates well the difficulty of discussing social values as if they are simple characteristics attributable to an area or culture, like the climate or altitude. While most San Franciscans agree that homelessness is a problem, there is disagreement as to why it is problem: is it because all human life is valuable and everyone should have a home? Or is it frustration with people using the systemgetting money to spend on drugs and alcohol while the rest of us work hard to support ourselves? Is it disgust with people who use city streets as their beds and their toilets? There is greater disagreement when it comes to possible solutions. Newsom and his backers have attacked the current system that disperses cash (upwards of $350/month) to individuals for indeterminate usethe campaign emphasized the number of drug overdoses and deaths on the streets. Care not Cash says that the solution to the current problem is new management of the existing resources already allocated by the government for the homelesstake away most of the cash that is handed out, and use the monies instead to offer services. Critics of the proposition point out that the solution cannot be found in a mere redistribution of current funds, but that more resources, including money, need to be allocated in order to truly make a difference. Advocates of such an approach point out that many of the homeless are on the streets because of earlier budget cuts to mental and physical health facilities. The negative repercussions of these cuts can only start to be reversed with an increase to previously reduced budgets.

The four museum projects mark an exciting time in the art and architectural worlds of the Bay Area and stand as an amazing testament to the diversity and vibrancy of San Francisco. And they provide an opportunity for celebration: celebration that the arts continue to be a priority of both public and private support; celebration of the specific cultures being represented and honored; celebration of the development of the rich architectural fabric of the city; and celebration of the continued strength of San Francisco as an international center. But these projects also provide an opportunity for reflection: What are the values of a society where gorgeous and provocative buildings occupy the same landscape as the thousands of homeless, such as in the streets of San Francisco? What does it mean when millions upon millions of dollars of public monies are spent on cultural centers, while a solution approved by the majority of voters to alleviate homelessness redistributes funds, and does not increase them?

Architecture embodies the contradictions of values. It embodies the complicated web of aesthetics and politics. Architecture does not exist aside from a subject to experience it. Architecture tells stories, but the listener affects the stories that are heard. You may hear in the architecture of the new Asian Art Museum the story of the value that San Francisco places on its cultural institutions. You may hear a harmonious story of the fusion of the older Beaux Arts building with the new modern, light filled atriums. Or perhaps the architecture speaks to you of discord and difference as you navigate the conjunction of the traditional and modern spaces. And on that sunny April afternoon, as you stand startled on its front entrance steps, the museum may whisper to you new understandings.

Standing there, you think of the gallery of Chinese jades that you had just visited. Sheltered from the outside light and noise, you were able to focus on those objects showcased within that interior space. You were awed by the beauty and richness of the material; you were curious about the history of acquisition of these piecesthrough theft, through purchase, through war? Thoughts of different times and places fleeted through your mind, as you walked around the display cases, studying the captured jade. You stood protected in the clean, blank box of the gallery. The pieces exist now thousands of years and miles from their time and place of origination.

Now outside, you turn in order to face the museum. You understand that the museum is an object, just as the jade pieces housed within the museum are objects. But unlike the carefully organized displays deliberately determined by curators and directors, this museum now exists within the dynamic and messy context of the buildings and streets and people and noises and dirt around it. The museum is not sheltered from its location in time and place. You cannot walk around it and understand it without noting how the adjacent buildings are reflected in the large windows; or how the public buses noisily go by every five minutes; or that the homeless occupy the benches of plaza across the street. The understated interior of the museum provides the culturally appropriate (and blank) context to appreciate the precious pieces, but the museum itself cannot be extracted from the surrounding urban landscape. A landscape comprised of not only other buildings and the undulation of the streets and the blue sky above, but by the business people walking to work and by the men and women pushing their belongings in shopping carts. Go to the sites of the Jewish Museum or the Mexican Museum or the de Young Museum and you will find similar elements forming their contextual landscapes.

The issue of homelessness is not peripheral to the discussion of social values and architecture in San Francisco. In this city, the homeless and the museums share the same physical space, and they vie for limited public resources: resources as tangible as money and as vague as sympathy and respect.

The discussion of the four museum projects in question offers a rich opportunity to consider the multiplicity of experience of architecture. In these instances, the buildings themselves are significantthe architects and the designs are of superstar nature. The projects have earned much support because of the prestige of the designers and the hope that, consequently, San Francisco will maintain, or even surpass, its prestigious position in the art and architectural worlds. And certainly, these projects may endure the test of time and stand as testimony to future generations of the value that San Franciscans placed on the arts. Perhaps in fifty or a hundred years time, there will be no homeless in the plaza lying between the Asian Art Museum and City Hall. Or perhaps the doors to the Museum will be permanently locked and its galleries empty as hundreds of homeless people live in tents amidst the plane trees. If this is the future, then the architecture of the Museum will tell a different story.

What is the role of the architect in contributing to this complicated web of values and aesthetics and politics? Just as her work exists with a time and place, the architect is temporally and spatially situated. She should know history while understanding that it is impossible to know all of history; she should be aware of the present knowing that there are millions of different experiences occurring simultaneously; she should dream of the future, knowing that it is unknown. The architect knows that she has a responsibility to play her small part as best as she can, bringing her knowledge and vision to her projects.

There is not a clear formula to follow that will guarantee the longevity or importance of a building. As described by the lead architect of the Asian Art Museum, Gae Aulenti, the project &has been an occasion for me to learn how this City is an important cultural crossroads, a melting pot of different cultures living together while keeping their own identity, and also how crucial is the role of private citizens in artistic patronage and in public works financial support (from These private citizens are largely outside of Aulenti's range of control.

While it is impossible to talk of universal values, it is possible to speak of a shared consensus, especially in a democracy that allows the public to voice their opinions through voting and the marketplace. That is why the issues of public sentiment with regard to the support of the arts and the solutions to homelessness provide the opportunity for such a discussion because both homelessness and the museums have been partially affected by the publics will.

By placing architecture within the greater fabric of both the visible landscape and the invisible forces of politics and patrons and citizenry, it is clear that the architects greatest responsibility in the creation of space is to recognize her own context. She must know that she does not create within a windowless blank gallery, but within the vibrant contradictory web of life.

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