A World Class Theater Designed Like a Community Meeting Space

The new SFJAZZ center in San Francisco drew its inspiration from spaces like Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Chicago.

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In the last few years, San Francisco has seen an influx of new architecture to house its cultural institutions: Herzog & de Meuron's de Young Museum; Renzo Piano's Academy of Sciences building; Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum; and the soon-to-come SFMOMA expansion by Norwegian firm Snøhetta The new SFJAZZ center designed by award-winning firm Mark Cavagnero Associates, which formally opened on January 21, joins their ranks as an admirable addition to the city's urban fabric. The building is modern architecture at its best: in tune with its surroundings, functionality (acoustics, in this case) held paramount in its design, and intended for the public rather than a rarefied few to enjoy.

The $64 million, 35,000-square-foot project located at the intersection of Franklin and Fell streets is the culmination of 30 years of planning by SFJAZZ Director Randall Kline. His overarching goal was to create a center that would be equally good for performers as it would be for audiences and would foster community ties. "We tried to view this without any restrictions," says Kline of the concept, which includes a 700-seat auditorium, sound lab for educational programs, rehearsal space for the SFJAZZ high school group, administrative offices, and restauranteur Charles Phan's latest addition to his culinary empire.

Kline hand-selected Mark Cavagnero to design the building (Kline saw a quotation from John Coltrane on Cavagnero's website and that sealed the deal). It was up to Sam Berkow, founder of SIA Acoustics and Auerbach Pollock Friedlander to tailor the auditorium so that it offered balanced and even sound from every vantage point. Local builder Hathaway Dinwiddie carried out construction.

The sound in the theater is remarkably balanced and there truly isn't a bad seat in the house. There are seats all around the stage so if you wnated to focus on the piano player or the bassist you could pick a seat directly behind the stage to see the players up close and still hear a very full sound.

"Randall wanted all the extremes," says Cavangero. "He wanted presence and intimacy; he wanted neighborhood and world class; he wanted it to be very proud and strong and at the same time defer to the neighborhood's architectural massing—to step down, to fit in, not to look overwhelming or imposing. I scratched my head and said, 'Boy this sounds kind of like a truck that drives like a Porsche. Can you actually do this?' Then I realized that everything he said made sense and it was doable. It just meant that we couldn't look at preexisting prototypes."

The search for inspiration led Cavagnero and Kline to look at structures designed for community meetings rather than traditional theaters and auditoriums. Their journey through architectural history included spaces like The Old South Meeting Hall in Boston, Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Chicago, and Louis Kahn's Unitarian Church in Rochester. Herman Hertzberger's music center in Utrecht proved to be especially inspirational.

Here's a view of the 700-seat auditorium from the stage. "Randall [Kline, cofounder of SFJAZZ] talked about the idea of having intimacy, a tight scale, great sight lines, and for this to be a place where musicians like to play and where they can see faces and can capture the energy of the audience," says architect Mark Cavagnero.

"Being in that theater wasn't any different than being in a public space," says Kline.

Cavagnero opened his firm in 1988 and since then has constructed a slew of civic, cultural, and commercial buildings all of which radiate thoughtfulness and repose and reflect an subtle eye for proportion and detail. The same holds true for his new building. At two-stories tall, its scale isn't domineering and the large expanses of glass are intended to reflect the city on the outside and allow visitors to marvel at the surroundings from the inside. The transparency also helps to make the building (and organization) feel accessible to passersby. One of Cavagnero's inventive design details includes a sightline that allows one to see directly onto the stage from the sidewalk.

"The fun of this was to think through a new model with no real physical constraints," says Cavagnero, a fitting statement about a venue for jazz.

Top Image: Center is located at the intersection of Fell and Franklin streets in San Francisco, California.

About the Author

  • Diana Budds is assistant editor at Dwell. A Bay Area native, Diana studied art history and environmental policy at UC Davis, and credits her love of art, architecture, and design to many childhood visits to museums. Before coming to Dwell, Diana worked in the Architecture and Design departments at MoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.