This last spring, BUILD met with architect Stanley Saitowitz at his San Francisco studio to discuss his current workload, the challenges of Modernism and bringing good design to the people. 

Octavia Gateway, San Francisco, CA, 2007. Rendering: Natoma Architects

Octavia Gateway, San Francisco, CA, 2007. Rendering: Natoma Architects

BUILD: You and your team of architects are true generalists, designing everything from single-family residences to skyscrapers. How is your office organized to do so?

Stanley Saitowitz: Our work is strategic, and it’s modeled on an idea of architecture that relates to someone like Mies van der Rohe. Rather than reinventing everything every time, we’re in a process of evolution and refinement. We also have a small office where we work efficiently and the work is well directed. We don’t do alternatives, try things on for size or have beauty contests. It’s a studio of focused thinking, and we’re a good machine.

What is your experience working with the stringent historic preservation codes in San Francisco?

It’s the reason that we’ve been driven to look for work elsewhere. As an example, the Octavia Gateway project of ours in San Francisco was designed seven years ago. The site is virtually unchanged because the approval process has been stalled by a discussion of minutiae. In another seven years I’ll be 70, and I just don’t have the time for these absurd situations. You don’t have so much life that you can waste seven years trying to build a 50-unit structure.

San Francisco has a way of absorbing mediocrity. A nebulous design gets much less attention here, and subsequently, there’s less resistance to it. Unfortunately, our work seems to be a lightning rod for resistance, and it’s not easy for us to get projects through the approval process. The projects don’t get any better because of this process, either. Everything has become so complicated and tedious; there are so many checks and balances that I’m surprised anything decent gets built. These processes are making it more and more impossible to do good work.

Where do you like to work outside of San Francisco?

Miami Beach is a great place to work because it’s a city that embraces Modern architecture, unlike San Francisco, where every building is meant to be Victorian. The area has this kind of exuberant tropical Modernism, and we’re trying to work out of this language and reinvigorate this tradition in a contemporary way.

You’re also doing a significant amount of work in Cleveland. Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing there?

The project is a real piece of the city’s fabric. Old Cleveland has all these amazing buildings, but the city has lost a third of its population, so they are mostly empty. We’re currently converting eight floors of one of these old buildings into housing, and it’s the best housing we’ve ever done because of the quality of space. The 12-foot ceilings and massive windows make for really beautiful units; you can’t build like that anymore. Also, the work we’re doing in Cleveland for $150 per squarefoot would cost about $250 per square-foot in San Francisco.

How did you achieve the simple elegance of the mixed-use Uptown project in Cleveland?

We compressed all of the services like mechanical, electrical and plumbing into a service bar that runs along the spine of the building. This service bar resides in a dropped ceiling adjacent to the hallway. All of these service bars line up among units; the geometry is then mirrored on the opposite side of the hallway to create what we call a double-loaded corridor. Once you move past the service bar in each of the units, there’s nothing to get in the way of the windows and high ceilings. It’s cheaper to build this way because everything is so rationalized, and it’s a simple design process.

You once likened good architecture to Levi’s jeans, meaning that the right approach should have an application to the masses. Do your larger developments with repetitive plans speak to this?

Yes, many of our projects of this scale incorporate the same strategy using the service bar. Our work aims to be a blank slate; it tries to be deprogrammed and indeterminate. What we try and do is make a quantity of quality. This is why I have such a dislike of most of the housing in San Francisco. The houses are based on the Victorian model, and they’re unlivable. All the rooms are the same size, and they’re all too small. They don’t represent anything about the way people live today; they’re uninhabitable.

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

The images on your website suggest a spartan lifestyle for the inhabitants of your projects. To what degree is this simple lifestyle intended?

I read this thing that the German architect Ludwig Hilberseimer said, that the ideal urban house should be so well designed that all you need to do is bring your clothes, a chair and a table, and you could live there. And, in a way, that’s what we try and do with our urban housing.

Is there a point in design at which the more minimal something seems, the more complicated it actually is under the surface?

I think some architects do find that threshold, but we haven’t. I’m not a design fetishist, and I don’t really care about having the best costume jewelry. I was recently at an architect’s office, and they were designing doorknobs. I couldn’t be bothered with that; why not use the doorknobs that are already being manufactured? That’s where I think there’s a lot of waste. I have an appreciation of beautiful things, but I think machines are useful; I don’t think you have to make everything by hand. I’d rather have a bigger room than a custom-made doorknob.

You believe that buildings that offer value and economy are a responsible way to build. How is the profession in general doing on this front?

I was in Germany recently and noticed the amount of resources they put into the quality of architecture there; they just spend more effort on their buildings. It’s a little embarrassing to see the way we build in the United States. I don’t want to make buildings cheaper; what I’m trying to figure out is how to best allocate the construction budget. I’m trying to figure out ways to optimize everything and get the most value. That is, to get the biggest spaces, the best light, the most choice for the occupant. The method is pretty simple: compact all the expensive stuff, be rigorous about how it works and have the most open-ended space so that people can decide how to use it.

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

Yerba Buena Lofts, San Francisco, CA, 2002. Photo: Tim Griffith

Is there a particular project of yours that has achieved value with little waste?

The big success for us in housing was the Yerba Buena lofts because that building was a magnate, and it was built for the same price as all those Dryvit buildings out there. It was built in such a way that there wasn’t any waste. With most buildings of this scale, you build a concrete structure and then you have people from seven or eight different trades wrap it up. Some of these buildings use a hideous amount of materials on the façade. With Yerba Buena, we just had concrete and glass, which involved fewer trades to complete the building. This freed up more funds to put better materials into the building—we were able to use channel glass, for instance. It was an exercise in figuring out how to manage resources more intelligently within the existing standards.

Many of your projects span entire city blocks; at what point does the project require you to think like an urban planner?

Often times, as the architect, we’ll inherit the lot. The project may already be approved, the number of units may be fixed, the floor area ratio may be fixed, and the amount of parking spots predetermined. We don’t necessarily have to be planners.

Do you consider your work to be regional?

I’m not regional in terms of wanting to be a Bay Area architect; I consider our work to be multi-regional. Our basic interest is in place and the differences in places. In Berkeley I want to make Berkeley buildings, and in Toronto I want to make Toronto buildings.

What is your advice to architects about working with big developers?

If you can do what they want, which is to be efficient, they won’t micromanage the design (at least not the developers we work with). We have much more freedom working with developers than with single-family residential clients, and it’s much less tedious. While developers may not be directly interested in good design, they realize that the market is. 

What is your advice to young architects starting their own practices?

Having built projects to show makes it easier for people to believe in your work. Having projects that people could see is what allowed me to get my start. I don’t know how a young architect would even start a practice today; it’s just so hard. I don’t see anyone going out on their own anymore.

What’s on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I recently finished Community and Privacy by Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, and I’m currently reading Metropolisarchitecture by Ludwig Hilberseimer. I read mostly to support my wars.

See more of Stanley's work on BUILD's blog.