Young Man Yells at Skyscraper
7 min read

Young Man Yells at Skyscraper

Not that young, not that skyscraper
Young Man Yells at Skyscraper

San Francisco is a glorious city that has trouble scaling itself up without creating a glitch-world of haunting pixels. Best known for its gorgeous residential architecture — Victorian houses with bay windows, heavily themed early-20th-century apartment buildings — it nonetheless has a financial district and is determined to grasp it, even if all that smoked glass makes the buildings too hot to clutch in your fist. City’s got to have joysticks, or how would you control it? Here, I’ll tell you about some local skyscrapers on which I have opinions.

I took all of these photos on the same afternoon walk, somewhat extended by confusion about identifying the Millennium Tower. The thing is falling down, yes, but it doesn’t have the grace to lean at a sharp enough angle for that to be visible, and without that, it’s a totally undistinctive building.

Onward to:

555 California! (The tall one in the back.) This is a uniquely alarming building for a number of reasons. One, it’s part way up Nob Hill and doesn’t have great sightlines from far away. You don’t see it until it’s on top of you, like that Mario monster which, I’m now told, is called a Thwomp. (This is also why it’s very hard to photograph from the street; this shot is taken from one of the few vantage points that work.) The dark marble and glass emphasize the building’s mass, but they make it feel less stable, rather than more: to emphasize mass is to emphasize potential energy. The subtext of every San Francisco skyscraper is its acceptance or denial of earthquakes, and this one feels like it’s on the denial side.

I like 555 California a little more when I consider it in light of when it was actually built: 1969, the same year as the Transamerica Pyramid. It feels like such a pure extrusion of the eighties, with the marble and the air of corporate menace, but that means that it was ahead of its time.

It’s for sale, if you have a billion dollars.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: 3/10.

The Transamerica Pyramid is one of our two best skyscrapers. Sharp and clean, with two elevator shafts at the sides that look like you squeeze them to activate the laser, it feels harmonious with its neighborhood despite its enormous height. My photo doesn’t show this particularly well, but its facade soaks up light in extraordinary ways: taking on the warm tones of a sunset, becoming Chris Ware-ishly crisp in the morning. I know it took San Francisco a long time to learn to love the Pyramid, and I get why, but they were clearly wrong. The seismic vibes here are comforting: the pumice-like facade feels light and balmy, the pyramid shape speaks of stability without shouting about stability, and the beams at ground level also make the building feel both airy and strong. The Transamerica Pyramid is witty. It feels tame, the city’s tool and pet. Absolutely terrific.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: N/A (not trying)

Embarcadero Center isn’t just a weird mall — it is also this. I’ve never been clear on how many of these things there even are. It’s probably, like, four. Doesn’t matter anyway; like a quaking aspen, it’s all the same system at root.

I have a soft spot for Embarcadero Center, and so does the fucking earth. It’s built on landfill and not anchored particularly deep; the builders of the Millennium Tower have defended their own work by pointing out the two complexes were engineered with similar techniques, and Embarcadero Center hasn’t sunk into the earth or fallen over yet. It does, however, look like it’s marching into the sea, and like it’s proud to do it.

What do I like about it, then? I like that the buildings look like rows of books. I like that they’re not exactly alike. I like the way the light hits the walls. I like how they look procedurally generated. I like how weirdly easy they are to anthropomorphize. I wonder how these buildings are doing.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: 2/10 (I think they are trying a little, but the results are too subtle if so.)

44 Montgomery. Look, I just like it, okay.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: N/A (not trying)

Oh dear. I photographed 101 California thinking that I would argue that it’s underrated, but while it is underrated (Philip Johnson! Iridescent carapace!), it turns out that it’s pretty wacky, and my sense of admiration has a lot to do with its location on one of my favorite night walks. This tower looks way better at night — the sloped facade lights up like a chandelier, and you don’t see the, the thing at the right. Nor do you parse the way it’s trying to do the same thing at ground level as the Transamerica Pyramid, but less successfully.

I will say, though, that this one looks better than it photographs. It moves beautifully as you walk by it in person; the pleated facade is like a perfectly sewn skirt, and the deep blue windows strike just the right balance of blending the building with its surroundings without making it appear to hide in embarrassment. (A lot of all-mirror buildings do make me feel like they’re shouting “ignore me!”). Like the Transamerica Pyramid, it’s basically a friendly building. It’s appealing to walk by, and it’s a good citizen, showing off its surroundings in a flattering light. “No u,” it seems to say, “no, u.”

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: 3/10

181 Fremont. Kind of a generic modern building, with generic modern building style (that is, it’s quote-unquote original, but it just feels like a building whose gimmick is originality, like the one Gap dress in any given style that has a pattern). Still, I give it points for its approachability, and the way that the crystalline facade makes it look less huge than it is — at 803 feet, it’s the third tallest in the city, but you wouldn’t think so, would you? It also does a nice job of addressing the city’s unstable ground, to return to that theme; the facade feels mobile, like something that can roll and swing with a punch.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: N/A (not trying)

181 Fremont is cursed by proximity to the brand-new MIRA, which is doing everything it does, but better. Here it is:

HA HA HA HA HA! I mean, fuck! Look at it! Fuck!!

The Transamerica Pyramid is the city’s most famous building, so I’m always surprised that we don’t have more novelty skyscrapers — obviously we are down for a little whimsy. MIRA (whose name I insist on writing properly, because I respect its pretention) remedies this. What I really, really, passionately love about it is its response to being built in an earthquake zone: it channels the earthquake, it evokes it on purpose. It looks like it’s designed to move constantly, so you’re not afraid of it moving. It’s not a witty building, like the Pyramid; its humor isn’t dry. It’s a perfectly constructed anecdotal joke, the showpiece of the comedian’s set. This is what a San Francisco building should be: bold, multifaceted, and about as straight as a paperclip.

Jeanne Gang is the architect; she specializes in this kind of thing, but doesn’t repeat herself. I wish more of this residential tower were affordable for normal people (it’s 60% million-dollar condos), and I wish it weren’t part of the walled tech garden of eastern SOMA, but these complaints stem from the fact that a building this great should belong to everybody.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: 10/10 (trying)

I want to like the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco, because everybody else hates it, but I hate it too. The shape is as boring as you can be while still trying (and it's derivative of 30 St. Mary Axe in London, but in a smaller way, like the opposite of a caricature). The weird jungle-gym windows are instantly dated. The notched top is weird.

I do like the giant video screens which light the tip up at night; that’s one way I’m a genuine contrarian. And I have some happy memories of my nonprofit employer’s 2019 gala up in the Ohana Room, which are wonderfully clear even though it’s been 120 years.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: N/A (not trying)

This is the Millennium Tower, I’m pretty sure. They’ve figured out a way to retrofit it so that it doesn’t fall over. The rest is silence.

Attempted nod to San Francisco’s trademark bay windows: N/A (not trying)