By John King | December 13, 2017
Architect David Adjaye, the Ghanian-British designer knighted in May by Queen Elizabeth, is best known in the United States for his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. But in San Francisco, he’s tackling something at a grander scale — the rebirth of 420 acres at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
It’s a stark asphalt landscape where dozens of industrial buildings sit silent, vulnerable to weather and vandals and everything in between. And ever since Adjaye began work last year, he’s been captivated by the latent power of the place.
“It’s such a different project for me, such a big job,” Adjaye, 51, said during a recent visit to meet with officials at FivePoint, the developer that has been working on the shipyard since 1999. “It also tackles a big issue for the 21st century — how do we reuse systems and buildings that have outlived their original function?”
Adjaye isn’t starting from scratch: Plans to redevelop the shipyard were approved in 2010. There are 309 homes completed so far in the project’s first phase with 138 more under construction.
The project also includes the site of Candlestick Park, where land once reserved for the Giants and 49ers is being readied to hold a town square-style shopping center.
Adjaye and his firm joined the effort at the behest of Kofi Bonner, who has been leading development efforts at FivePoint and, before that, the associated firm Lennar. Soon, the architect was making the case that two remnants of the military past should be called back into service — an immense former ship repair facility and a four-story concrete warehouse, both built shortly after World War II.
“They’re very utilitarian, but there’s an intelligence to them,” Adjaye said. “We want to reveal the heritage of what we have.”
That heritage isn’t alluring when glimpsed through chain-link fences. The high point — literally — is a 450-foot-tall gantry crane that was the world’s largest when it was built in 1947. The crane and the dry dock alongside it were marked for preservation from the start as part of the shipyard’s identity.
But once past the security gate, amid lines of locked buildings along potholed roadways, you realize the potential drama of a flatland pressed by the bay on three sides and the housing-topped ridge on the fourth. The drama is even more obvious inside the huge industrial structures that Adjaye has convinced FivePoint to save.
Building 411, where welders and boilermakers once punched the clock, is a gaunt skeleton defined by 70-foot-high steel columns. Light streams through small-paned windows, some with glass and some without. On rainy days, water spills past the remnants of the saw-toothed roof, leaving pools to reflect the scarred grandeur.
Photo: John King | The Chronicle | Building 411 at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Uphill in the rear are the first signs of redevelopment at the shipyard, which was closed by the Navy in 1974. As of December 2017, nearly 450 housing units have been built or are under construction.
The warehouse known as Building 813 is the exact opposite, compressed and dark. Burly round columns line up and recede like the tree trunks of a mature orchard — directing your eyes, often as not, toward creative graffiti on the distant walls.
Adjaye’s vision for Building 411 would replace what’s left of the skin with something clear and lean, the muscular ironwork exposed as though this were a simple metal garage of gargantuan scale. At Building 813, two bays of the warehouse would be removed front to back, bottom to top, creating a forceful linear atrium.
Each building would be reborn as commercial space, part of the larger notion of casting this part of the shipyard as an “incubation zone” where high-tech jobs and mixed-income housing sit alongside each other.
“This isn’t about the Disney-fication of industry,” said Adjaye, whose architecture is as contemporary as it gets. “Buildings should look the way they do because of how they are structured and how they perform.”
In another shift from the approved plan, Adjaye rearranged things to make room for a 10-acre “green room” surrounded by old and new buildings, far back from the shore. It would be four times the size of Union Square.
Adjaye also proposes a broad stairway leading from the dry dock up to the hilltop housing — a transition framed by a giant sculptural portal.
“If everything is looking outwards (toward the water), the blocks in the middle are the poor cousins,” Adjaye explained. “That’s an aspect of city-making, to me. If you live someplace, you should have a variety of experiences.
Photo: Transparent House | A revised master plan for the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard would mix housing and commercial development with large public areas.
The redevelopment of the shipyard has been contentious from the start. The Navy, which has been plagued by controversies related to soil remediation, isn’t scheduled to hand off the bayside portion of the site before 2019. The expense of tearing down buildings and laying out new roads and blocks will be daunting — even without the cost of raising the entire site as much as 8 feet to prepare for the likelihood of long-term sea level rise.
Nor is there any guarantee that Adjaye will design any of the new buildings. A plan is just a plan.
Changes to the approved plan must be authorized by the city’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure. Asked about the new direction — FivePoint hopes to take Adjaye’s work to the office’s commission for a vote in the spring — the office responded with a cautious statement from its executive director, Nadia Sesay.
San Francisco is a city that obsesses over context, making sure additions to the landscape are compatible with what already is there. Often, that’s a good thing.
Sometimes, though, there’s a need for large-scale drama.
Places long off the map need a jolt to make people pay attention. That’s what happened when the Giants decided to build a ballpark next to Mission Bay, then a moribund rail yard where a procession of plans had failed to gain steam.
The shipyard closed in 1974. Slowly, it is returning to life. Adaye’s goal is to help move things along by combining audacious design with a healthy respect for the past. He’s on the right track.