A guide to the work of Stanley Saitowitz, San Francisco’s most polarizing designer
By Jay C. Barmann
July 27, 2018
Photo courtesy Natoma Architects
Image: Beth Shalom Synagogue in San Francisco's Richmond District.
College of Environmental Design Professor Emeritus of Architecture Stanley Saitowitz is one of the most respected, polarizing, and prolific designers in San Francisco, and yet outside of architecture circles his name is not well known.
His high-profile Yerba Buena Lofts on Folsom Street, one of the biggest and most recognizable local projects completed by his firm, Natoma Architects, is now 17 years old. Another Saitowitz endeavor that many San Franciscans will recognize, 8 Octavia, was completed in 2015 and featured on HBO’s Looking. These residential projects share an emphasis on exposed concrete, and an innovative approach to privacy—the former using columns of stacked channel glass to let light in, and the latter featuring a series of vertical louvers that residents can mechanically open and close from within, constantly changing the texture of the building’s facade.
Both buildings show off a signature of Saitowitz’s style, a strident form of modernism that tries to push forward the visual conversation begun by Mies van der Rohe and his contemporaries.
Saitowitz’s work has spanned four decades and can’t easily be summed up by his love of concrete and geometric simplicity. San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King has said Saitowitz’s buildings “share a distilled rigor, at once forceful and precise.” The designer’s highly intellectual approach to design began as a student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and when he speaks about his architecture, he tends to speak of tailoring buildings to their sites. But also, like many in his field, he can get quite abstract.
“I’m working on two morphologies, one sensual, the other mental,” said Saitowitz in a 1996 monograph of his work. “These recur in varying priorities. In the landscape, flow dominates; in the city, rigor.”
He admits today that his work as a professor of architecture for over three decades at the University of California at Berkeley greatly influenced his designs. “Being both academic and practical is the hallmark of our practice,” Saitowitz says.
While his more recent residential work revels in right angles and stark geometries, the evolution of Saitowitz’s vision began with one of his earliest commissions, the Transvaal House in the province formerly known as Transvaal in South Africa, built in 1978. Like some of his other small-scale work that would continue into the 1990s, the Transvaal House takes its cues from its immediate landscape, the highveld of inland South Africa. Saitowitz imagines the house and its attached workshop and garage as “three huts loosely woven with the earth.” The resulting design, with its corrugated metal roof barrels and irregular window patterns, is well ahead of its time, and was the first of many projects that would gain wide attention and come to exemplify what Saitowitz dubbed “geological architecture.”
When asked how his practice has evolved to address urban spaces, Saitowitz tells Curbed: “My work began with houses in landscapes under the umbrella of architecture as human geography—I thought of buildings as weaving ground and sky to capture space, similar to the way geological forces produce topography. When I began working in cities, my interests shifted to urban geography, which I considered as natural as landscape, and focused on architecture in continuity with the fabric of the city.”
While Saitowitz’s recent residential work is marked by austerity, his firm has gone in many different directions over the decades, exploring commercial and religious architecture as well. Saitowitz was celebrated in the Jewish community for his 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston—a set of six glass towers, etched with seven-digit numbers to evoke the tattoos of those who died in the Holocaust, with each tower representing one of the six main death camps in Poland. The towers form an illuminated walkway; visitors walk through each of them in a row, with the insides of each tower etched with quotations from witnesses to the Holocaust. The memorial was the first major competition win for Saitowitz, putting him on the national stage.
In a different urban mode, Saitowitz provides a utopian approach to modular housing in the form of the Garden Village complex in Berkeley, completed in 2016. Modeled after cities in Europe with narrow, pedestrian-focused streets flanked by multistory apartment buildings, this 77-unit student housing complex is divided into 18 individual, free-standing structures, which themselves are made of stackable, pre-constructed modules. Their roofs are topped with an actual working farm called Top Leaf Farms. Given its economy, the complex is less showy from the outside, but its functionality and ingenuity, and the cozy grass-lined paths that separate the detached structures, make the design important in other ways.
The body of work, taken together, shows a mature architectural practice that defies easy categorization. Saitowitz works in a midcentury mode while embracing contemporary materials and functionality, all the while reserving the right to invent new forms entirely.
“What has remained constant in all [of my] projects for more than 40 years is the idea of architecture as a tool of liberation, a way of promoting freedom,” says Saitowitz. “I am much less interested in self-expression than in establishing opportunities that enable occupants to express themselves. This has meant buildings that are instruments rather than objects, more like telephones than conversations, more like cameras than photographs.”
He adds, “What continues to challenge and thrill [me] is the ability to make things up and then make them real, bringing into the world things that did not exist. Our work is a way to repair places piece by piece, a corner here, a slot there, always aiming to intensify the found uniqueness and leave it reformed and in a better condition, a tiny fragment of a more ideal city and a better world.”
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