words Justin McGuirk
The new face of government glowers from the corner of Seventh and Mission Streets in San Francisco, thanks to an office building designed by Los Angeles architecture practice Morphosis. The 18-storey Federal Building contains the offices of six governmental departments, and creates an intimidating landmark on the edge of the city’s business quarter.
The building’s facade is reminiscent of the practice’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in LA, which also presents a severe and seemingly inpenetrable front to the city. But Morphosis founder Thom Mayne refutes the idea that the building is a critique of faceless federal power. “It shows optimism for the power of government institutions at a time of incredible cynicism in this country – I mean, we’re in the Bush-Cheney era. I’ve been teased by other architects about my optimism.”
The grand entrance hall, with its leaning, faceted walls, is a manifesto for a complete break with the standard office building type. “We started with certain questions, like are office buildings really generic? We didn’t accept that,” says Mayne.
Mayne discusses the building chiefly in terms of its performance, which far exceeds the environmental standards of the average American office building. The structure uses high levels of natural ventilation and lighting, a factor made possible by its slim profile. The main, south-facing facade is made up of a perforated metal skin that shields the interior from the sun but allows air to flow into the narrow building and out through the rear facade, which is similarly protected by glass louvres. Above the fifth floor the windows are controlled by an automated system that keeps the interior at a constant temperature.
In front of the building is a public plaza. Here the metal skin unfurls to form a jagged roof over a cafeteria, childcare facilities and a conference centre.