Changing SOMA

in: AIACC / 0 Comments

Share this article:

This article is adapted from a presentation by the author before the San Francisco Planning Department and Historic Preservation Commission.

The Center for Architecture and Design, a non-profit started by AIA San Francisco, received a grant from the NEA to match designers to public agencies and other non-profits to use “design thinking” to solve what the grant calls “intractable urban problems.” The intractable problem:

How can civic leaders balance the relations between contemporary architecture and the historic character of neighborhoods?

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) neighborhood.

Three Urbanisms
My guess is that both the AIA and Planning expected me to talk about how to add on to historic buildings, perhaps thinking I would talk more about building features and window locations in facades. I took another course, and this afternoon, I’d like to share how I looked at SOMA—how architecture supports urban traditions, ongoing spatial practices, and future development. I begin with a view of cities as an urban setting, a whole. Each time we build, we contribute to that whole. For me, urbanism is about the daily life in a city as experienced by its residents, workers, and visitors.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Amsterdam and Charleston, South Carolina

I think of urbanism in SOMA in three ways:

First, in terms of its urban IDENTITY. What is SOMA’s unique character? How is it remembered as distinct from other districts and cities we know like Bologna, Charleston, Amsterdam, and other districts in San Francisco?

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

San Francisco neighborhoods: The Sunset and Alamo Square

Second, I think of urbanism as urban LEGIBILITY. How easy is the city to be used, to be navigated? In New York City, the blocks are narrow and long, so, standing at any corner, you know how to move north-south on the avenues or east-west on the streets. How do the links, nodes, landmarks, and districts give orientation? In San Gimignano, you move with the topography and look for the towers that mark the next plaza.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Left: San Gimignano; Center: New York City; Right: ZhuJiaJiao

These two qualities are built with urban FABRICS. How do individual parts fit together? An urban fabric, not just continuities of public spaces, but an interweaving of public and private. Seeing cities as fabrics allows designers to describe relations not just within a project but also within a district and within a city.

In my research, I’ve come to believe that built landscapes that flourish and endure are rich and complex urban fabrics, revealing the choices of residents and visitors alike. These settings are admired for the multitude of ways they support being in a place—in the city, in the neighborhood, in the street, in the room.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Left: Levittown – Photo © J. Scherschel/LIFE; Center: View of Overpass – Photo © Corbis;
Right: Futurama at 1939 World’s Fair by Bel Geddes – Photo © Corbis

Fragmenting Urbanism
In viewing the long tradition of city building, urban fabrics have been the norm. It is not until the middle of the 20th century that development and design moved from building fabrics to building objects. After WW2, middle class Americans were encouraged to move to the suburbs with the construction of miles of highways and government subsidies for single family homes. City centers were depopulated and buildings were abandoned.

Federal funding supported razing large swaths of city lands either for new infrastructure or for urban renewal. There was a cultural and spatial paradigm shift in the rebuilding of these sites—each site was seen as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, without historical, cultural, or formal connection to a larger context, the city.

As a result, the new emphasis for building of uniqueness shifted from the urban fabric to individual buildings. Distinctiveness was and is achieved by intentionally separating and disengaging a project from its context. Buildings were associated with corporations or with architects as the source of form, not the place.

The objects became more important than the relations between the objects. Spaces between buildings are undefined, and cars seem to dominate public space. Urbanism is fragmented. Today, we have a building culture that rewards making the extraordinary ordinary rather than making the ordinary extraordinary. We all know the Gertrude Stein quote: “There is no there there.” This is one effect of fragmenting.

Left: Ad in the New York Times – Photo © Gehry Partners for the Related Companies;
Right, Shanghai Pudong

The resulting urban cacophony is all too familiar, homogenizing differences between and within cities. There is no there anywhere.

How do we help make individual actions in a city add up? Preservation alone is not enough. There is no such thing as a noncontributory building in a city when it comes to urban identity and fabric. How can SOMA change to become more—more identifiable, more legible and a district with its own distinct urban fabric?

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Left: 1020 Pine Street, San Francisco, Kennerly Achitecture’s – – Photo © Tim Griffith;
Right: typical SOMA through street

Retooling Soma
As for SOMA, in my view, SOMA may be perilously close to having no there there. For many people, this area of SOMA is just a district they drive through on their way to and from the highway. It has an eclectic collection of buildings, no area of contiguous building types or building materials, and in the study area, few buildings that are currently historically landmarked. Yet, SOMA is one key to a growing economic life of the city and it needs to be retooled and revitalized as vibrant district in the city. To do this, I’d like to talk about some of its latent urban potentials—an urban heritage that is already imbedded in the structure of the city.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Left: Eddy Plan of San Francisco, 1849;
Right: substructure of lanes in SOMA.

Urban Identity: Inside Soma
As seen in the Eddy Plan, the original platting of SOMA was similar to north of Market, but with much larger block dimensions. To use develop these large blocks, a substructure of lanes emerged. These lanes, which are often closed at their ends, give SOMA a unique urban structure with through streets and small non-through lanes. These lanes are opportunities to intensify the identity of SOMA.

I will use a few other cities to illustrate the potential of the lanes. First is the South End in Boston which has thin, narrow parks on their cross lanes and gateways, or transition zones, into the lane built from urban landscaping, implied horizontal continuities across two buildings, and of course the t-intersection.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

The South End of Boston

In South Amsterdam, the lanes also form t-intersections with the through streets. Here there are building setbacks in the block interior and gateways built through the mass of the buildings.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation


SOMA has this lane structure as well. We can see it in South Park, in the residential enclaves, and in the gateways like those at Minna Street and at the Chronicle.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Upper left: SOMA lane structure; Upper right, South Park;
Lower left: San Francisco Chronicle building; Lower right, Minna Street.

Urban Fabric: New Scales Of Development

Another way to change SOMA to become more is to extend its urban fabric. Part of the identity of this portion of SOMA comes from a very fine-grained fabric. There are many small lots that give density and character to the streets.

While SOMA has always had large and small parcels, current development requires increasingly larger lots to raise density, to provide parking, and to implement sustainable strategies and so on in which efficiencies are achieved with larger sizes. Lots that are 20,000 to 40,000 square feet are more desirable today. In the area south of Brannon, with its wider blocks, those lot sizes are more common. In the upper area, larger developments take up longer stretches of the block. How does this size contribute to or diminish the fine grain urban fabric?

: urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Left: SOMA parcel sizes; Yerba Buena Lofts, Stanley Saitowitz and Natoma Architects;
Right: Shipley Street face.

Yerba Buena Lofts is an interesting case study. This is the better known view of the project from Folsom St. on the left. But this is the building edge, below, on Shipley, that I’d like to talk about.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Two approaches to the center of the SOMA block

Let’s compare two design approaches to the center of a SOMA block. The first puts a plaza in the center, and the units are entered from the plaza. The second puts parking in the middle and unit entries on the street. Both are good schemes when seen out of context. But, when set in SOMA, the interior courtyard takes away activities and vitality from the lanes, diminishing the identity of SOMA. Even with fine grain of residential units, the fabric needs to be enriched by how people live and move through a place. With the plaza, residents move inward and leaving a blank wall along the lane. With the parking in the center, residents look and move outward, adding life to the lanes.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Shipley Street, San Francisco: two approaches compared.

Connecting Soma: Intensifying The Legibility Of Streets
A third strategy for retooling SOMA is to look at the through streets, the named and numbered streets: Mission to Brannon, 2nd to 6th. With the large block dimensions, you can’t use the street intervals as a clue to reading orientation like in NYC, so it here that architecture can make a difference.

For example, returning to Boston, this time to Back Bay: the long streets parallel to the Charles River, highlighted in yellow, all have different street sections but they share a pattern of entry, front stoops and bay windows.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Boston, Back Bay, streets parallel to the Charles River.

The cross streets that move to and from the river engage the streets completely differently. There are few entries along this edge, and if there are, they are recessed from the facade.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

Boston, Back Bay, streets perpendicular to the Charles River.

When you are in Back Bay, you always know whether you are moving parallel or perpendicular to the river. Because the legibility is so clear, new and older buildings maintain this orientation.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

SOMA street orientations.

SOMA has opportunities to increase its legibility: the named streets could be associated with moving to and from the water. The numbered streets could be associated with moving up and down the peninsula. How can these differences in direction be made more legible?

I think one opportunity is to look at the use of corners. The red indicates sites that are either vacant or have a small building in the middle of a larger open space. As SOMA changes, building heights, building entries, block corners are all opportunities to clarify legibility.

urban planning, architecture, San Francisco, historic preservation

A Continuum
There has always been a conflict between those who want to keep things as they were and those that want everything to be new and never before seen. If we accept that polarity, then the debate for the growth and inevitable change in cities is indeed an intractable problem. In returning to the original question then, I’d like to strike out two words:

How can civic leaders balance the relations between architecture and the character of neighborhoods?

I find urban tradition and heritage in SOMA’s urban structure. I see its architectural history as a continuum with every building an expression of its time and culture. History is constantly being made. Transformation and change are part of the continuum, and the question is how to use change to advantage.

So, let’s answer the question of “How can civic leaders balance the relations between architecture and the character of the SOMA neighborhoods?” with three more questions:

  1. Rather than first asking how a project looks, ask how does it perform? How does it contribute to urban identity, legibility and fabric?
  2. Second, how does one plus one add up to be more than two? How does an individual project contribute to the form of the whole city? I hope I’ve suggested ways to evaluate projects not only on an individual basis but in its context.
  3. And last, how does change serve as an opportunity to build an urban heritage, one rooted in the past and sustaining the future?


The author would like to thank Margie O’Driscoll (Executive Director, AIASF) for assigning the age old problem of the relations between contemporary architecture and historic character; John Rahaim (Director, SF Planning) for suggesting that we look at SOMA; Tim Frye (Preservation Coordinator, SF Planning), Steve Wertheim (Planner for Citywide Policy & Analysis, SF Planning), David Alumbaugh (Senior Urban Designer, SF Planning) and David Winslow (Architect, SF Planning) for the insights they have shared about SOMA. Special thanks to the Commissioners (Planning and Historic Preservation) for taking time out for their full schedules to participate in a discussion about the future of SOMA.


Renee Chow

Renee Y. Chow is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies; Co-Chair, Master of Urban Design Program; and Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley. She is also principal of Studio Urbis, an architecture and urban design practice formed in collaboration with her partner, Thomas Chastain. Projects include single and multi-family residences, institutional and commercial projects as well as urban and community specific development plans and studies.

More Posts

Share this article:


Leave a Reply

Join the discussion!