San Francisco's Architecture

San Francisco's architecture scene underwent a dramatic growth spurt in the first two decades of the 21st century. Boldface international architects spearheaded major projects like the Salesforce Tower (2018), the Chase Center (2019), and SFMOMA's dramatic expansion (2016). And with those additions came heated local debates.

The development flurry is thrown into sharp relief by the previous decades spent carefully preserving the city's historic buildings. Genteel Victorian homes are a San Francisco signature, and this residential legacy is fiercely protected.

Residents aren't shy about voicing opinions on the "starchitect" plans, either. As high-profile designs unfold and new condo neighborhoods break ground, criticism will surely escalate. One thing that gratifies everyone: the impressive advances made in eco-friendly building practices that are a recurring theme in the new, prominent building projects.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta's first shot at designing a museum resulted in the distinctive, sturdy geometrical forms that reflect his signature style. Here a black-and-white cylindrical tower anchors the brick structure. Botta called the huge, slanted skylight the "city's eye, like the Cyclops." A new wing, designed by Snøhetta, opened in 2016, adding more than 100,000 square feet of gallery and public space.

de Young Museum of Fine Art

Love it or hate it, the structure is a must-see destination in Golden Gate Park. After the original Egyptian-revival edifice was deemed seismically unsafe, the Pritzker-winning Swiss team Herzog & de Meuron won the commission to rebuild. Their design's copper facade and, in particular, the 144-foot observation tower—a twisted parallelogram grazing the treetops—drew fire from critics, who compared the design to a "rusty aircraft carrier." But the copper hue is mellowing with age, and the panoramic view from the ninth-floor observation deck is a hit.

California Academy of Sciences

An eco-friendly, energy-efficient adventure in biodiversity, Renzo Piano's audacious design for this natural history museum comes equipped with a rain forest, a planetarium, skylights, and a retractable ceiling over the central courtyard. But it's the "living roof," covered in native plants, that generates the most comment.

Mission Bay, Rincon Hill, and Transbay District

San Francisco's cityscape is undergoing tremendous change, especially moving south from Market Street along the waterfront. Glass-sheathed, condo-crammed high-rises are taking over what was a working-class area of warehouses and lofts, led by Oracle Park, the Giants' baseball ballpark. The ultramodern Transbay Terminal, with a rooftop park, opened in 2018, as did the soaring Salesforce Tower, now San Francisco's tallest building. The blocky new Mission Bay Conference Center on the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) campus, by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, has changed the landscape of nearby Mission Bay, as has the Warriors' new waterfront home, the Chase Center basketball arena and entertainment complex.


The development of this parkland continues at a relatively slow pace. Its historic military-base buildings are being put to new uses—everything from a printing press to a spa. Additions include a digital arts center by George Lucas, a Walt Disney Museum, the beautifully renovated mid-century Presidio Theatre, and the hip Inn at the Presidio and Lodge at the Presidio boutique hotels.

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