What to Do When Your City’s Tallest Building Looks Like a Penis

Like other iconic landmarks, Salesforce Tower will become normal. Until then, people are still making dick jokes about it on social media.

Every Sunday, Stone and Nikki Melet catch a breath of fresh air by going for a hike in the Presidio or Lands End. But a few years ago, they began to realize that something from the city was following them wherever they went, continually popping into their line of vision and finding a way to insert itself into every vista and overlook.

It was Salesforce Tower — or, more precisely, the tip of Salesforce Tower. There it was, peeking through the clouds; there it was, poking through the treeline. The Melets saw it so often that they developed a catchphrase for it: “Just the tip,” Nikki says. “It does look very phallic, you know.” 

An idea began to germinate in their minds of crowdsourcing photos of the tip from different vantage points across the Bay Area and posting them on a tongue-in-cheek website called Just the Tip. The project was in line with the funny, quirky, entrepreneurial spirit that Stone, 47, and Nikki, 45, share. Both originally from the Midwest, Stone, a small-business owner, and Nikki, a physician’s assistant, have lived in San Francisco for the past 20 years, riding the ebbs and flows of the city. 

“We saw the crazy lavish parties” at the height of the dot-com boom “turn into pink slip parties, where people were just trying to get jobs,” Stone says.

With the development of Salesforce Tower, it was clear that San Francisco was on the cusp of another tech wave. The Melets launched Just the Tip SF, comprised of a website and Instagram account, in mid-2018, a few months after the tower opened. Over 1,000 photos have since been submitted to the website, and the Instagram account has gained nearly 3,000 followers. Even Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, once tweeted a link to the website before deleting it.

Scrolling through Just the Tip’s website and Instagram feed is at once captivating and disorienting. There’s a grainy shot of the tower tip looming over the Richmond District. A stunning photograph of the tip surrounded by fluffy pink clouds at sunrise. A man lying on the ground so the tower is aligned with his groin. A pixelated picture of the tip peeking through the spokes of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The photos — ominous, beautiful, ironic, ambivalent — seem to capture a mood, a feeling, about Salesforce Tower that is difficult to articulate otherwise. Just the Tip was conceived primarily as a humorous project, something that would make people laugh. But it’s also emerged as something more than that: a real-time catalogue of people’s reactions as they grapple with this new addition to their city and what it represents.

“People don’t like change much, and this was a big change,” Nikki says. “It was kind of shocking, dropping this phallic skyscraper in the middle of the city. It changes the entire skyline — it’s no longer the TransAmerica Pyramid and Coit Tower. It’s like, here we are. We are tech. This is San Francisco now.”

Salesforce Tower isn’t the only San Francisco building to have a humorous Instagram account devoted to it. There is, for example, an Instagram account featuring the TransAmerica Pyramid tip from vantage points across the city. But none of these accounts seem to have gained as much traction as Just the Tip.

On one level, this has to do with height. At 1,070 feet, Salesforce Tower is the tallest building in San Francisco and the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi. You love to can’t help but see it. On another level, this has to do with the sheer comic potential of the tower’s shape, which many agree is identical to that of a giant phallus. (If you don’t believe me, just search “Salesforce Tower phallic” on Twitter, or any other search engine, for that matter.)

There are two reasons why Salesforce Tower “inherently has more of a phallic appearance than most buildings have,” says Mitchell Schwarzer, a professor of visual studies at the California College of the Arts and author of the 2006 book Architecture of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The smoothness of the building is one factor — each floor looks the same. And two, it tapers up to that 100-foot top that lights up at night and looks like an uncircumcised penis.”

Although the initial reaction to Salesforce Tower was “largely negative,” Schwarzer says he doesn’t think it’s necessarily due to the phallic shape. Instead, he says, it’s because people are resistant to change.

“Because San Francisco preserved a large part of its old residential fabric — the Victorians and the Edwardians — and it looks distinct because of its hills and topography, it looks different than other American cities,” he says. “And because of that, people fall in love with it and develop a certain image of it,” which makes it hard for them to adapt when that image changes.

Many iconic buildings that seem inseparable from the fabric of the city, like the TransAmerica Pyramid or the former Bank of America Center at 555 California St., were “extremely disliked at first,” Schwarzer says. “And now, they’re an immediate identifier of San Francisco, because over time people have seen them in movies and photographs and got used to them in person. Probably the same thing will happen with Salesforce Tower, but it will take another 10 to 20 years.”

The Melets have already sensed a shift in public perspective. Many of their early Instagram posts were inundated with negative comments about the tower, with people writing things like, “‘It’s an eyesore!’” Nikki says. But now, many of the Instagram photo submissions she receives are “more positive and artsy.”

“People have gone through the process of denial and anger and accepted it now,” she says.

Part of this acceptance will entail an acceptance of the tech industry’s unprecedented dominance in the Bay Area — Salesforce is San Francisco’s largest private employer — and all the things, good and bad, that come with it.

There are, however, different architectural models of tech dominance, and Schwarzer prefers Salesforce Tower to the sprawling, “entirely privatized” suburban tech campuses of Apple and Facebook. “I’d rather have tech towers that are relatively accessible and part of the city fabric,” he says, pointing out that the tower lobby is open to the public, as is the adjacent Salesforce Park. Salesforce also gives free monthly tours of the tower’s Ohana Floor on the 61st and highest story.

For her part, Nikki has grown to appreciate aspects of Salesforce Tower, and finds herself looking forward to seeing what videos or artwork will be featured on the tip’s LED display each night.

She also likes that Just the Tip has become an outlet for San Francisco’s creativity and humor to shine through. “Politics isn’t the takeaway,” she says. “We want people to have fun with it.”

And they are. Users have suggested the Melets expand their website and Instagram account and begin featuring building tips in other cities. Just the Tip, though, isn’t a profitable business — it’s just a fun side project, albeit one into which the Melets have invested $1,500. 

“But we would like to add all sorts of embellishments and develop the website more,” Stone says one day over lunch. He sits there for a moment, thinking, and then turns to his wife, eyes wide. “We should have a tip jar! It never occurred to me until this moment. Leave a tip! How do we not have a tip jar?” He’s overjoyed by the unintentional pun.

“That’s kind of weird, to ask people for money,” Nikki says, but she’s laughing too. “Doesn’t Wikipedia do that?”

“Yes, but that’s a public service,” Stone says.

“This is a public service,” Nikki says. As proof, she shows me a recent Instagram picture, in which someone dressed up as the tip of Salesforce Tower — just the tip — for Halloween. The post has 354 likes and eight comments, all of which are positive. 

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