Profile: David Baker, Architect

By Matt Smith

Photograph by Travis Jensen

David Baker is a local don of a planning and architecture movement that strives to create modest, space-efficient, pedestrian-friendly cityscapes. His perky, Cubist take on the midrise apartments at Eighth and Howard streets was named one of the best buildings of the past decade by the Chronicle's John King. His 224-apartment mini-neighborhood at Showplace Square at 888 Seventh St. was described by the real estate blog Curbed SF as “David Baker's cry for dense living.”

When asked to reflect on his own ideas of what's great about San Francisco architecture, however, this new-urbanism high priest swoons for pedestrian-hostile, space-hogging edifices heretical to the faith. He says he loves San Francisco for a cityscape that combines dense pre–WWII architecture with occasional outrageous structures that keep the city from seeming mundane.

“If you have great rules, you want to stick to them most of the time,” Baker says. “But if you break them once in a while, it makes the city more interesting. Otherwise, you have a purely new, urbanist city where everything homogeneously meets these sets of rules and everything is excruciatingly boring.”

Morphosis Architects' new Federal Building at Seventh and Mission streets is widely despised by planners and architects as a gaudy violation of the city's streetscape and skyline. Thom Mayne designed it as a towering jumble of cockeyed cement rectangles sheathed in shiny latticework. For passersby at street level, meanwhile, the building offers fields of blank concrete.

Mayne has “completely violated all the city planning rules, and pissed the planners off, and he can do it because it's the federal government,” Baker says. “And it's one of the most wonderful buildings in San Francisco. It's an incredibly iconic building. … It's totally out of character.” He cautions, however, that the building succeeds because it's distinctive when compared to its more approachable surroundings. “If everybody's a bad boy, you've got L.A. And L.A. pretty much sucks.”

Baker enjoys local renown for energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable apartment complexes that blend harmoniously with the city around them. But the designer of another of his favorite San Francisco buildings took excess, inefficiency, and incongruousness to extremes.

“They went completely crazy,” Baker says, in reference to architect Arthur Brown Jr.'s San Francisco City Hall. “It's still totally overstated for this city. Imagine when there was nothing there after the earthquake” of 1906. In 1915, it was built as a Beaux Arts municipal capitol, sized to fit an empire. A $293 million renovation in 1999 seemed to mostly renew its lunatic spirit of excess. Today, Baker thinks it's one of the best things about his home city. “One of my marriages was in the dome, which is the best place to get married in San Francisco,” he says. “I think it's really a wonderful building.”

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