Rising Starchitects

by Flora Tsapovsky

This city is a show-off. From the still-in-progress Salesforce Tower to the majestic Grace Cathedral, our gleaming skycrapers and stately landmarks give SF its character—and controversy—amid simmering tensions between the status quo and those who would seek to disrupt it, along with what appears to be a largely shared mission of making a small, but hugely influential, metropolis a better place. After all, the world’s eyes are on San Francisco (and its Silicon Valley coin) to lead the way. In this changing landscape, an architect’s craft is especially important. How does SF inspire the brightest stars on the scene? We caught up with three of them to find out.

Kulapat Yantrasast

Kulapat Yantrasast
Kulapat Yantrasast

Bangkok-born, award-winning Yantrasast is the man powering one of SF’s most anticipated renovations at the Asian Art Museum. Scheduled for spring 2020, Yantarasast’s interdisciplinary, LA-based design firm, wHY, is leading the project. The architect, who’s also responsible for the Gagosian San Francisco’s bright, welcoming space, visits the Bay Area once per month, juggling dual projects: the museum near City Hall and a new youth art center in Palo Alto.

The $90 million expansion of the Asian Art Museum—complete with a 13,000-square-foot exhibition pavilion and terrace—is a natural fit for Kulapat and his firm, which formerly took on the renovation of Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, delivering ultramodern lines and big glass windows, and gave LA’s Marciano Art Foundation a new look and feel.

About the Asian Art Museum, Kulapat says: “We want the experience of the art to be the most inspiring andexciting, more immersive. And the challenge is to have a flexible pavilion that will allow the museum to remain open during construction.”

For some, immersive might mean Instagram-friendly colors and swings, Museum of Ice Cream-style, but Yantrasast takes a different approach that recalls the serenity of SFMOMA’s Fisher wing. “I’m the matchmaker between people and art,” he says. “Museums started as storage spaces for art, or as temples, and often their structures don’t help the art to inspire people. I decentralize the experience to make it more inspiring.”

The placement of art, the lighting, everything comes into play. “We need to create a special moment for each of the amazing artifacts, have the visitor encounter the art pieces one by one,” he emphasizes. “We want to build with respect to [Civic Center] history, but with very contemporary, tech materials, so people know it’s built in 2018.”

Steve Wiesenthal

Steve Weisenthal
Steve Weisenthal

“My parents claim that when I was five years old, I said that I wanted to be an architect, and I never veered off,” says Wiesenthal, fellow of the American Institute of Architects and an integral member of Studio Gang, the acclaimed, multi-location urban design practice founded by Jeanne Gang, starchitect with a capital “S.” The magic of the profession? “One can envision what doesn’t yet exist, and work with a lot of people to make it happen,” Wiesenthal muses. He’s been doing just that in San Francisco, working on two fundamentally different projects: the Folsom Bay Tower, a residential high-rise blocks from the Bay Bridge, and the new campus of California College of the Arts, coming to San Francisco in 2021.Wiesenthal knows a thing or two about academia, having served a long stint at the University of Chicago as Senior Associate Vice President for Facilities Services and University Architect.

“At the Folsom tower, we’re taking cues from [San Francisco’s] architectural heritage, especially the bay window, thinking how the tower can add to the city skyline and provide interesting views, starting from the inside out,” he explains of the structure, mocked up in renderings to resemble swirling, vertical wisps of air. The college is about taking the lush pastoral landscape of the Oakland campus and intersecting it with the industrial terrain of the San Francisco landscape.”

In the end, Wiesenthal says, the goal is “to connect people, build community and awareness of the environment from natural, ecological and cultural standpoints.” He reflects: “I have grown as a professional thinking about the many ways to connect people through architecture. Our work takes up a place of the planet, so we have a lot of responsibility.”

Amit Price Patel

Amit Price Patel
Amit Price Patel

Growing up in the Midwest, Price Patel felt his calling since he was about six years old. “I was always curious about how streets and parks came together, and I loved drawing,” he says. These days, he’s a principal at SiteLab, a design and strategy studio that often takes on large-scale, urban spaces and mixed-use projects, frequently with a social angle. “I almost quit architecture after my freshman year [at Washington University] because I didn’t feel like the program was engaging with social and political issues,” he says, “but then I met some professors who were engaged in social work, and community-based projects.” For his masters in City Planning and Architecture at UC Berkeley, Price Patel had a chance to dig even deeper into the link between architecture and social issues. He was a recipient of the Branner Traveling Fellowship, sending him to explore the regeneration of high-rise social housing in the U.S., Brazil, Asia and Europe. “I visited South Africa, where you could see how architecture was part of the apartheid system and was used to control and divide people,” he recalls.

In San Francisco, Price Patel has been most recently involved with 10 South Van Ness, a high-rise mixed-use project and collaboration between SiteLab, artists and engineers. At Pier 70, another large urban development, the firm is repurposing a building for a market hall, office, park and makerspaces. Affordable housing is permanently on Price Patel’s mind. “I’m very interested in this topic, especially in San Francisco, as it’s a very geographically limited place where a lot of people want to live,” he says. “Fundamentally, cities are places of opportunity—if there’s no housing and good transportation systems, it reduces the point of the city.”


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