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San Francisco’s Eco-Evolution

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Photo: Amanda Marsalis

Another possible harbinger of things to come is the dramatic new San Francisco Federal Building, situated on a stubbornly bleak stretch of Mission Street. Designed by Thom Mayne, of the L.A. firm Morphosis, this is probably the most visible symbol of the new San Francisco. The Federal Building is only 18 stories tall, but is located in an otherwise low-rise part of town, so you can see its asymmetrical silhouette, and the sunshade that looks like an insect’s exoskeleton, from all over town (it’s less omnipresent, however, than One Rincon Hill, a 60-story condo tower that everyone I meet gripes about). At night the Federal Building is illuminated by a James Turrell sculpture, a line of LED’s that starts on the plaza level and traces the contours of its “sky garden.” Like many LEED-certified buildings, this one features natural ventilation and has windows that open automatically according to climate conditions. The hallways and most surfaces are cool gray concrete made with 50 percent recycled slag. A series of Ed Ruscha murals was commissioned for the elevator lobbies. The building gives the impression that our federal government is an immensely chic organization, or as my tour guide, Gene Gibson of the General Services Administration, observes, the building is “overly optimistic.”

But “overly optimistic” is San Francisco in a nutshell, San Francisco at its best. A friend of mine, architect Mark Jensen, recently won a competition to design a roof garden for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His design, in theory, features lichen-covered walls that “will change color and texture with the passing seasons.” Very poetic. Very optimistic. I visit Jensen at his firm’s offices overlooking Market Street. As we look at the SFMoMA renderings, he confesses that no one has ever grown lichen in captivity and he’s not even sure it can be done. And I think, as we discuss his lichen strategy, that we are having an archetypal San Francisco conversation.

During my stay, I go on a series of field trips trying to hammer out an itinerary for the values tourist, seeking more examples of the local brand of optimism. One of the most impressive is Flora Grubb Gardens, a plant store newly relocated from a vacant lot in the Mission to Bayview, a light-industrial area south of downtown. Proprietor Flora Grubb is well-known for her selection of palm trees, and she also stocks a fascinating collection of plants called Echeveria, desert succulents that look like undersea creatures. She’s using them in a civic project, replanting the median strip of Guerrero Street. “I’m excited to design gardens that don’t need irrigation,” Grubb explains.

The building is an airy, light-filled, industrial-style shed designed by architects Bonnie Bridges and Seth Boor, with 72 photovoltaic panels on the roof. Solar energy supplies the needs of the plant nursery and the in-house coffee bar, a branch of Ritual Coffee Roasters that’s a magnet for the neighborhood’s workforce. “Everyone says when the Big One hits, they’re coming here,” Grubb says. Not only is the building set on a slab that’s engineered to float if the ground beneath it liquefies in a quake, but the solar-powered espresso machine will keep running no matter what. How 21st-century is that?

Also at the south end of town, I visit SF Recycling & Disposal Inc. Not just because it recycles everything from beer cans to house paint (which its workers pick up in alternatively fueled trucks, remix, and give away to developing nations). And not just because the hilltop behind the big waste-sorting facility is home to a meandering sculpture garden full of rusted springs and discarded soda bottles transformed into aesthetic objects. No, I’m here because the place has an artist-in-residence. I’m given a tour by Paul Fresina, who until recently ran both the hazardous-waste facility and the artist-in-residence program. “We didn’t use to use the word dump, because it was derogatory,” he explains. “But now we embrace it.” He introduces me to Nemo Gould, the artist of the moment, a lanky, sweet-faced young man in gray coveralls who has been building robots and mad-scientist apparatuses from scavenged materials, including the transformer from a broken neon sign and a shower mat (the source of suction cups for an “octopus” Gould made from curly wooden chairbacks). “Things that are beyond hope, but still have nice parts,” Nemo says, adding: “I love it here.” Once a month, the public is invited to tour the dump, and quarterly there’s an art exhibition, complete with an opening-night party. Fresina tells me that the dump supplies compost to local vineyards, and they, in turn, supply the wine for the art openings. The dump, I decide, is beyond optimistic. The dump is utopian.

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