David Baker Architects


Two "Infill" Designs that Catch the Eye

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John King
San Francisco Chronicle
November 23, 2007

<span style="font-style: italic;">Image: Jim Pire</span>

In more and more cities these days you'll find what planners call "infill"—apartments and condominiums popping up near transit and shops. They're intended for people who want to be part of the action, and they're touted as antidotes to everything from global warming to suburban sprawl.

In real life, though, the grand promises can translate into the urban design equivalent of castor oil: formulaic boxes that may be good for the region but leave a sour taste. So when two infill projects that look sharp and feel right open within a block of each other in Oakland, it's good news for anyone seeking models that other California cities can follow. And the fact that they're architectural opposites is no problem at all. It just shows that substance is more important than style.

The architect, David Baker + Partners, has designed some of the Bay Area's most colorful—and livable—subsidized housing. Here, you get the sense of a firm hitting its stride.

The buildings are located near Jack London Square, a blue-collar district in transition. You still see workers wheeling flats filled with produce or paper or other products into delivery trucks parked on broad streets. But the aged warehouses now are likely to share their block with residential buildings, some that are conversions of old buildings and others built from scratch.

Architecturally, most of the newcomers play around with looks that ape industrial styles. But Aqua Via, an eight-story apartment complex at Second and Madison streets, succeeds by going all the way.

Nestled against railroad tracks with a closed furniture wholesaler next door, Aqua Via is a spare but stately concrete box with large windows set deep inside a structural grid of columns and floors. The columns are painted brown, the floors dusky red; the loft-like windows are large openings filled by small square panes. It's an approach that's as conservative as can be, but it works. In fact, you need to look hard at things like the window frames to be sure Aqua Via opened in 2006, not 1929.

"The goal was to look like an old warehouse that had been reused as housing, so we built it the same way," said Stan Braden, a partner at KTGY Group, the architecture firm that designed Aqua Via for developer Embarcadero Pacific Co. "This is a concrete building. We didn't add a skin, and the windows are actually inserted into the frame."

This approach—stick to the basics and put the money into the bones—creates a depth and rhythm that isn't contrived. The building is robust but relaxed, while the large windows and their small panes keep it from seeming drab.

200 Second Street has pop-out features, shows off artsy fire stairs and a stacked trio of two-story high lobbies, each with custom lighting. <span style="font-style: italic;">Image: Jim Pire</span>

One block away, 200 Second St. offers something completely different: a bright jigsaw of punchy forms.

One thin right-angled bay is pastel blue; on the next bay, a two-story piece that's orange curves out above the sidewalk. Around the corner on Jackson Street, portions of four condo units project 2 feet beyond the surrounding wall, each protruding cube clad in shingled zinc.

Not only does 200 Second pop out, it pulls you in. The entrance is marked by a courtyard 32 feet wide and 17 feet deep, visible from the sidewalk through a sculptural gate of steel and glass crafted by South Park Fabricators. Behind the courtyard, the building's stucco walls give way to glass, showing off artsy fire stairs and a stacked trio of two-story-high lobbies, each with its own custom lighting and artwork.

The architect, David Baker + Partners, has designed some of the Bay Area's most colorful—and livable—subsidized housing. Here, you get the sense of a firm hitting its stride. There's a sense of control that keeps the moves from seeming arbitrary or forced.

"It's a very simple building," said Baker, who designed the 74-unit complex for Metrovation. As for what Baker called "all the pushing in and out," he shrugged. "We wanted bays that aren't like bays, so do them in parts and make them random."

As different as these two buildings might be, each strengthens a district that has been watered down by too many similar-size projects that are monotonous, ungainly or both. Aqua Via reinforces the original character; 200 Second adds a splash of contemporary fun.

They also show sensitivity to the street. Each features a tall ground floor with generous windows and storefronts that should come alive as the neighborhood matures. Compare these with other recent buildings' street-level spaces. They're afterthoughts, not attractions.
The lessons in these buildings should reach beyond Jack London Square.

Dense housing is no longer a trend confined to large cities like Oakland or San Francisco. You see it in Palo Alto and Santa Rosa, Concord and Millbrae. And it's not some weird dogma being shoved down suburban throats. Within every community there are people who want to live in compact convenience.

The trick is to do it in ways that live up to the hype. New buildings, however they look, should be shaped by thoughtful architecture and an attention to the sort of structural integrity that will endure—like a good warehouse—as a place evolves. Those are the traits shared by 200 Second and Aqua Via. And they're the traits that cities should insist on from developers and architects in years to come.