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Old Posted May 8, 2007, 10:07 PM
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Big buildings, grand plans for UCSF
But with little attention paid to human scale, a public university excludes the public

John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The UCSF campus in Mission Bay is nothing if not ambitious.

Lab buildings swathed in travertine stone flank a central green the size of Union Square. One parking garage is cloaked by strips of clouded glass arranged in DNA patterns. The entry plaza is as wide as Market Street and includes a Richard Serra sculpture with 49-foot-tall planks of rusted steel.

What's been built so far has a $685 million price tag. At least 12 more structures are on the way, plus a 14-acre hospital next door.

It's a remarkable investment in the future of San Francisco -- but the result could be a grand opportunity lost.

What exists today is stocky on the skyline and sluggish on the ground. More troubling, this public university turns its back on the outside world -- as though the surrounding streets were nothing more than service alleys.

Some problems are unavoidable, such as the way lab buildings are molded by the demands of medical research space. Other ills can be treated. The key is for UCSF is to do everything possible to make the campus a true part of the neighborhood around it, not just an enclave where researchers test the boundaries of science.

The university's original home is on Parnassus Heights near Golden Gate Park, a site stuffed to overflowing long ago. Because of this, UCSF in 1991 began hunting for land where it could erect an additional campus.

Mission Bay entered the running in 1996, when new Mayor Willie Brown and Mission Bay landowner Catellus offered UCSF 43 acres, gratis. It was a sweet deal all around: UCSF received a spacious blank slate with no contentious neighbors. Brown scored a political coup. Catellus jump-started a project stuck in limbo.

Ten years after the UC Board of Regents made the selection official, a visit to the quad shows how far the campus has come.

The 3-acre green space designed by Berkeley's Peter Walker & Partners includes rolling hills and clusters of pines. Both the scale and the landscaping have an orchestral sweep.

The scale is monumental; the landscape has a grandly public feel.

There's also drama in the community center on the green's west edge. It's a massive cube of red stucco cut by two deep notches: an entry courtyard with walls of vibrant purple and a fourth-floor terrace of glowing pink.

To cap things off, literally, a slender campanile forms a 120-foot-high shaft -- no function, just form.

"We wanted the building to really come out of the ground," says Ricardo Legorreta, Mexico's best-known living architect, who designed the building with his son, Victor. "We feel architecture should be sculpture."

The community center isn't exceptional by Legorreta + Legorreta standards, but it's a welcome jolt in context. That's because the lab buildings around it are blandly overbearing, tedious from afar and deadening up close.

This is especially true of the first building to open, Genentech Hall, an immense 434,000-square-foot monolith with 3-acre floorplates. It is only five stories, but when you add up the high ceilings required for laboratory space and the ventilation shafts on the roof, it tops off at 120 feet.

The design is stiffly formal -- a semiclassical veneer on an oversized box -- and from Interstate 280 Genentech Hall looms like a beached ocean liner.

The show for pedestrians is equally grim: There's no hint of human scale in the block-long structure, just blank walls on the ground and punched windows far above.

To be sure, the architects are in a bind. Today's biomedical research buildings require elaborate mechanical and ventilation layouts, often more than one per building. This translates by default to squat forms.

Worse, the Mission Bay campus sits on filled land -- mucky soil that can't be excavated. That means no basements in which to hide boiler rooms and the like. They end up on the ground floor instead, consuming space that otherwise could be geared to students and the public.

But the first phase of the campus also suffers from UCSF's focus on researcher convenience. These buildings are designed from the inside out, the outside be damned.

When Genentech Hall received a 150,000-square-foot extension to the east, for instance, the campus plan called for a 25-foot-wide break between the two buildings to make this block along the green a bit less forbidding. Scientists, though, wanted to walk down hallways to their colleagues without stepping outside.

They won. The public lost.

The comfort of researchers and graduate students is important, absolutely. But this campus exists because UCSF received a civic gift. The university shouldn't repay the favor with the architectural equivalent of "Keep Out" signs.

Fortunately, there are signs that UCSF is growing more comfortable with its surroundings.

One building that has particular promise is a cancer research facility being designed by Smith Group and local architect Jim Jennings.

It would be another bulky five-story structure, but the outer wrapping would form a refined collage, with each surface material signaling a distinct use inside. Scientist offices would be contained within a wall of glass panels ranging from clear to opaque, for example, while service areas would be behind terra-cotta screens that complement the nearby stone-clad structures.

There'd also be a glassy public passage through the building -- connecting a landscaped courtyard on the south to Mission Bay's common on the north.

It's a welcome and overdue gesture to the neighborhood. Let's hope it signals a more inviting design approach to come.
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