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Reinventing San Francisco

Catherine Ledner A view of the Ferry Building tower from the Embarcadero.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

The angular, copper-clad structure, which manages to be both dramatic and inviting, will patinate to a rich green as the copper oxidizes, a process that in the sea air may be more rapid than the planners at first imagined. The patterns embossed on the copper have a pretty amazing backstory: the architects photographed dappled sunlight on the building through the tree canopy, translated the images into stencils, then transferred them onto the façade. There's not a single duplicated pattern in the 960,000 pounds of sheathing, and, in a nod to the environmental consciousness of the city, all the metal is recyclable. Inside, the galleries offer an unusual sense of transparency—showcases are constructed so that you can walk around an object and view it from all angles.

My second stop is photographer Catherine Wagner's warehouse studio, in the Mission District. The renowned San Francisco artist's show "Re-Classifying History" will be the inaugural exhibition at the De Young's Connections Gallery. As I enter Wagner's sun-flooded workspace, she's poring over photos of an installation she did for the Comme des Garçons store in Kyoto. Wagner and I bond over a shared love of Rei Kawakubo; the artist says she sometimes finds things on sale at Susan, the one place in town that stocks a good assortment of Japanese designers. Indeed, when I visit Susan, on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights, a few days later, I'll spend a lot of time trying on clothes by Undercover, a Tokyo label so wacky that it's exceedingly hard to track down even in Manhattan. Then I'll wander around the neighborhood, which is hushed and expensive and feels like a West Coast East Hampton. (It's the sort of place where Carrie Bradshaw might have shopped if she'd married Big and moved to Napa.)

For part of her De Young installation, Wagner is making a video in which she asks foreign-born Americans to give their impressions of Christopher Columbus. One of her interviewees is Charles Phan, who opened the incredibly popular Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door in the Mission in 1995. (He has since moved to digsin the Ferry Building with sweeping bayfront views.) Phan also happens to be among Wagner's best friends: he threw a birthday party for her at the restaurant when she turned 50 last year.

"This is such a small town," Wagner admits. "My art-world friends are always asking me, 'When are you going to leave that sleepy little fishing village?'" But she's fiercely loyal. "We're still recovering from the trauma. Before the dot-commers lost all their money, you couldn't get into your favorite restaurant. Or, you'd be sitting at a table next to a 21-year-old who didn't even like wine, and he'd ask the waiter, 'What's the most expensive bottle on your list?We'll have that.' Well, now all those people are back living with their parents."

Wagner says she can feel the town returning to life—Valencia Street's mélange of traditional Latino businesses cheek by jowl with boutiques; the new Muni light-rail line down Third Street; the massive project to redevelop the Mission Bay waterfront; and, perhaps dearest to her artist's heart, the fact that San Francisco will soon boast not one but two world-class museums—the fantastical De Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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