The Wacky Skyline of an Alternative-Universe San Francisco

A new exhibition in San Francisco envisions the Bay Bridge as a massive vertical farm and Treasure Island seeded with water-purifying "jellyfish houses."

The Golden Gate Bridge is a massive desalination plant, the Bay Bridge a hanging farm, and the whole of San Francisco Bay is ripped down the middle by a canyon of cascading water. These are just a few of the ways that civic luminaries propose to better the Bay Area's coast and skylines.

San Francisco has a rich tradition of visionary architecture, and it's all on display at the tenth annual Architecture and the City festival taking place at venues around the Bay. This year, the huge architectural shebang – said to be the biggest of its kind in the nation – is embracing the theme of "Unbuilt San Francisco," highlighting momentous projects that are either in the works or were too ambitious or weird for their time and now exist as historical relics. The organizers of the fest, including AIASF and many others, have dug up some true winners this time; a plot to seed Treasure Island with water-bladdered "jellyfish houses" is one of the least bizarre proposals.

Here's a sampling of the formidable buildings and infrastructural interventions featured in "Unbuilt," which might also have been named "Unbelievable" or "Untenable":

Golden Gate Tidal Power and Desalinization Station

Everyone loves the Golden Gate Bridge. But aside from carrying traffic, it doesn't do much – just sits there looking pretty. Marc L’Italien, the design principal for the new Exploratorium, offered to give the bridge a second purpose with this 1990s scheme to transform it into a desalinization factory. His idea, which would come in handy during the next reservoir-threatening wildfire, was to submerge hydroelectric turbines deep under the bridge where the currents are especially powerful. The resulting power would operate pumps and filters ensconced in huge silos above the waves, so that locals could enjoy another source of clean drinking water. The plant would also include office space for the Coast Guard, NOAA, and other maritime players.

Folding Water

The Bay Area could be swamped by a 55-inch rise in sea levels in the next 100 years, according to the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission. One way to fight such a deluge would be to put a levee right in the middle of the Bay, as Kuth Ranieri Architects did in this 2009 concept. Write the architects: "It departs from the conventional, static levee – or dam – by exchanging waters through a perforated pump wall to artificially manage tides and create micro-bay estuaries along the shoreline and other key areas of the San Francisco Bay." In the bottom of the chasm would be geothermal power plants, hydroelectric generators and a desalinization facility. At the top, there presumably would be some kind of fence to keep sailboats from tumbling into the abyss – it would be a bitch to clean Oracle's Larry Ellison out of the turbines.

The Bay Bridge Project

After much pain, suffering, and broken steel, the eastern span of the Bay Bridge is finally open. And what to do with the old span? It reportedly will be torn apart and sold to China, but Taller David Dana Arquitectura and a couple of Berkeley professors have a better plan: Turn it into an airborne farm. Their proposal would load the creaky span with public spaces and gardens overflowing with tomatoes, artichokes, and maybe even California's other popular plant. Boom – right there is a new agricultural powerhouse providing the Bay with local food, a model for sustainability that might only occasionally conk a fisherman with a squash. (Another proposal: Make the span into a house.)

HYDRAMAX Port Machines

Looking like a xenomorphic fortress, Future Cities Lab's design for the region's waterfront fights rising sea levels with blunt robotic power. It's best to let the HYDRAMAX team unspool its slightly unnerving vision for the future: "Using thousands of sensors and motorized components, the enormous urban-scale robotic structure harvests rainwater and fog, while modulating air flow, solar exposure and intelligent building systems. Citizens move through the space, connecting to remote edges of the Bay Area through a robust ferry network. Fish farms are robotically harvested, while nutrient rich water fertilizes the vegetable farms and parkland embedded within. Fog feathers reach into the sky to collect dew and water is stored in an overhead armature that feeds it back into the system." And about three weeks after its launch, it will gain self-awareness and enslave us all.

Jellyfish House

Anybody who wants to live inside a jellyfish should immediately send venture capital to IwamotoScott Architecture. The firm has visualized a way to detoxify the manmade Treasure Island, located between San Francisco and Oakland, by colonizing it with these curious domiciles. First, workers would dig canals and wetlands to drain out of the Caesium-137 and other poisonous chemicals left by military ships and a nuclear-training facility. Then they'd stick in dozens of homes with bladderlike walls that collect and filter rain and gray water. Citizens could live in a tony, wilderness neighborhood while doing their part to help the environment – it all seems to work, just as long as they don't nail a picture into the wall.

Treasure Island

Or how about we just flood the island to create a quiet little beach community? That's the goal of this 2005 scheme from Rod Freebairn-Smith and Janet Crane, who envision populating the land with homes and docks nestled against a lagoon. The soil obtained by digging out the middle of the island would go into a tidal-surge boundary, and there'd even by an old-timey ship that functioned as a seafaring museum.

Hunters Point CraneCloud

Behold, the most baffling "digital innovation lab" known to humankind. Sited for Bayview-Hunters Point in the southeastern part of the city, the structure appears to walk on stilts and wears a "lightweight envelope" with "repositionable meeting pods" that slide around on old crane tracks. The architects thought that San Franciscans would enjoy listening to waterside concerts beneath the CraneCloud's immense belly, which would entertain all below with a digitally programmed ceiling.
 

Master Plan for Alcatraz: Indian Occupied Village

In the winter of 1969, a group of Native American protestors sailed to Alcatraz and planted for the next 19 months, demanding that the federal government recognize old treaties and honor their civil rights. One of their goals was to erect a cultural center on the former prison site; here's a plan that Donald MacDonald Architects drafted during the occupation aimed at fulfilling that dream. The "Alcatraz Center for Indian Life" would have transformed the Rock into a residential community for all tribe members, with a school, museum, retail shops, and council offices. It was a beautiful fantasy, and one that was broken up when the feds, playing true to history, came and kicked the Native Americans off the land.

Recycled Batteries

San Francisco's coast is littered with decrepit wartime bunkers that the military kept in readiness from the Civil War all the way to the last part of the 20th century. Rather than rip these outdated, salt-encrusted batteries from the ground, in 2008 the Office of Charles F. Bloszies suggested turning them into something beneficial. To whit, windmills. It's seems like a fine idea, given how much of the city's eyeball-sanding, trash-flinging wind is concentrated near the seaside.

Design for the United Nations Capitol

The United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945 and, for a while, locals wondered if the organization's headquarters would be centered there, too. Architect Vincent G. Raney, who was responsible for a rash of oddly dome-shaped theaters in San Jose, tried to hasten along that possibility by sketching this hypothetical structure. It central spire would rise next to Twin Peaks and, closer to the ground, trees and passersby would bask in the warm glow of an illuminated globe. It was not to be, as the UN eventually settled on constructing its base in New York, lured by John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s generous donation of $8.5 million.

Images courtesy of AIASF

About the Author