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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

May 2008 Issue

A More Perfect Union?
After five years, LAM returns to Union Square to ask: Is this a “people space” for downtown San Francisco?

By Morris Newman

A More Perfect Union? Photo by Peg Skorpinski

Something remarkable is taking place this cold February afternoon in Union Square, the San Francisco plaza located at the center of a busy retail, hotel, and theater district. Following hours of rain, the sun has reemerged, and long rays of afternoon light are beginning to dry the puddles on the granite pavement of the square. Within a few minutes, the square fills up with hundreds of people. Where did they all come from? It’s not hard to understand why they are here, however: A moment of sunbathing is delectable during a soggy Bay Area winter, when you can almost feel each photon of sunlight as it lands on your skin. 

The night of the same day, however, the square looks very different. As earlier, the retail district is alive with people. With signature stores open late for the weekend crowds, the Powell Street sidewalk, which runs along the western edge of the park, is three or four people deep. Bands are playing on the corner. Union Square itself, however, is nearly empty, except for a dozen or so people who are quickly cutting across en route to Powell. Amid one of the most active scenes of nightlife in the city, the park is nearly dead.

These two very different responses to Union Square hint at what is working, and what is not, as the fifth anniversary of the square, one of San Francisco’s most prominent open spaces, approaches. 

Controversy continues to swirl around the scheme, designed by the competition-winning team of Michael Fotheringham, ASLA, principal of M. D. Fotheringham Landscape Architects in San Francisco, and April Philips, ASLA, head of April Philips Design Works Inc. in Sausalito. Their design replaces a sloping park, planted with trees and hedges. The new scheme has terraces, mostly hardscaped, that cascade downhill toward Geary Street on the south. The dominant feature of the new design is a 235-foot-long “piazza” in the center. The redesigned square is notable for its stark simplicity, an emphasis on expensive materials (gray and black granite, green marble, and stainless steel), limited planting, and very limited shade cover.

…To read the entire article, subscribe to LAM!


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