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S.F.’s Civic Center has a new landmark — and it shows how the district should evolve

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 11/21/2021 By John King

If any recent building embodies Civic Center in the here and now — both its aspirations and its realities — the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Bowes Center for Performing Arts is the one.

The 12-story addition to Van Ness Avenue commands the corner that’s one block south of City Hall with contemporary assurance. There are beds and classrooms for students, but also apartments for the low-income people who lived in the site in its prior life. On top is a glassed-in performance space with eye-popping views of the City Hall dome. Down below, a restaurant and another performance nook should liven up the sidewalk scene.

The mix is remarkably complex, yet feels as if it was destined to be there all along. In the process, Bowes Center hints at how a district known for imposing governmental landmarks and sterile, gloomy streets can begin to feel like an integral, more diverse part of the larger city.

Bowes Center signals a major expansion of the Conservatory of Music, which has most of its academic and performance spaces a few blocks away on Oak Street. The new structure was driven by a desire to provide housing for roughly 400 of its 480 students, while also raising the school’s visibility. The location at 200 Van Ness is across from Davies Hall; the newcomer also features a ground-floor recital hall on clear view along ever-busy Hayes Street.

“It’s a planting of the flag, and that’s by intent,” said David Stull, president of the conservatory. “The location represents how we see the institute and its role.”

The architecture is part of the message, setting a tone that is assertive and civic at once.

Rather than cloak Bowes Center in masonry or ornamental columns, as is the case with many of the public buildings added to Civic Center in recent decades, architect Mark Cavagnero and his firm worked with the city’s Planning Department to craft a design that pushes against the strict rules of the historic district but respects the air of gravitas. For starters, the building is skinned in translucent glass that conceals insulation and the structural frame — a touch that adds a milky visual depth you wouldn’t get from precast concrete or metal tiles. (So banish thoughts of garish glass towers from your head.)

Planners also allow the northwest corner of the structure to pivot out 6 feet over the sidewalk from the third floor up, as if signaling that you’ve entered a different part of town. There’s a more modest angling on Hayes Street, showcasing the recital hall below. The glassed-in performance hall up high rests atop the northwest prow, radiating life when musicians are inside.

Compare this to Davies Hall across the way. The San Francisco Symphony opened its home in 1980 with no thought of wider connections; it was conceived as a citadel of high culture, sitting above Van Ness and Hayes on a solid concrete pedestal. Bowes Center, by contrast, wraps the lower two levels with 25 feet of clear glass.

“It’s important to humanize the Civic Center, make it more inviting and active,” said Cavagnero, who also designed the nearby SFJazz Center. “As beautiful as all the older buildings are, they’re pretty opaque. You don’t get that sense of what’s going on inside.”

The new building does this while acknowledging that no piece of the city is a blank slate.

In order to expand, the conservatory in 2015 purchased a site that included an aged building with residents in 27 rent-controlled apartments. So there now are 27 new ones on the third and fourth floors for the prior residents, units that will remain rent-stabilized in perpetuity. These tenants share the same 200 Hayes entrance as everyone else, but there’s a reserved elevator for their homes.

The multi-bed student apartments, meanwhile, have layers of acoustic insulation so that the aspiring musicians can practice at all hours.

All this is complicated, and I’m leaving out elements like the second-floor studio of classical music station KDFC or the ingenious acoustic work in the performance and recording spaces by Kirkegaard Associates. The 12th-floor terrace facing the northeast was shaped by the need to clip off solid space to preserve winter afternoon sunlight on a slice of Civic Center Plaza.

But San Francisco is complicated as well, and Civic Center especially so. That’s what makes Bowes Center special. It wants to be part of something larger.

As with many recent additions to the Bay Area landscape, the complex that had its public premiere on Nov. 12 isn’t brand new. Students and rent-controlled residents began moving in last fall. But COVID slowed completion of more intricate aspects of the building, in part because there was no hurry to get performance spaces ready for concerts that couldn’t be held anyway.

The press preview gave a hint of the building’s potential: pianist Garrick Ohlsson and legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma played in the penthouse performance hall, an intimate-feeling space even with the expansive views to the north and west. The wood ceiling with its soft downward swell shapes the space while enriching the sound. Later that night came a soiree for the donors who covered a large share of the center’s $200 million price tag, including an initial gift of $46.4 million from the William K. Bowes Foundation.

That’s another aspect of Civic Center. Philanthropic money gravitates there.

Prices won’t be nearly so rarefied when Bowes Center fully opens on Feb. 12, 2022. Nearly all the concerts that will activate the performance spaces throughout the week will be free to the general public. Civic Center will have a new attraction — and a genuinely accessible one at that.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

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