Memo From San Francisco: Insider’s Take
In a city notorious for restrictive design guidelines, Boor Bridges Architecture has made a name for itself by turning formerly industrial buildings into bright and inviting communal spaces. Headed up by partners Bonnie Bridges and Seth Boor, the design studio has worked its transformative magic on a number of recent and upcoming renovations, including Southern Pacific Brewing’s spacious pub in an old machine shop, Dropbox’s 70,000-square-foot headquarters in China Basin, and a live-work space dubbed Heron Studio that was once a commercial laundry operation.
This year, the firm solidified its reputation as the go-to firm for artisanal roasters with the opening of the second Sightglass café. This new outpost in the Mission district adds to a client roster that already includes The Mill, Four Barrel’s Parklet, and the existing Sightglass in the industrial SoMa neighborhood. The café’s ceramic Dal-Tile flooring, wall sconces with exposed wiring, and entry door made from steel, glass, and brass, gently highlight the industrial nature of the working roastery, where everything is roasted in-house.
Here, Interior Design asks Bonnie Bridges for her take on the massive changes underway in San Francisco and her firm’s particular approach to urban renewal.
Interior Design: What drew you to become a designer?
Bonnie Bridges: Since as far back as I can remember, I have participated in the design of my surroundings. I grew up in the Bay Area and my mother was a general contractor, so our house was constantly under construction. Our proximity to San Francisco allowed us to attend many cultural and architectural events, including the opening of the Bank of America Building in 1969 when I was nine years old. I walked by that building just yesterday. It will always be one of my favorites, despite the pinkish hued granite. Leading up to college, I was a math whiz with a penchant for applied arts—jewelry and ceramics mostly. After some searching, I found that an education in architecture was the perfect combo of both.
ID: What do you love about working in San Francisco? What do you find challenging?
BB: San Francisco is small—really small. As such, every one of our architectural insertions responds to the urban fabric, inside and out. We have to be experts in clever space planning and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.
ID: What are your firm’s current projects in San Francisco and the Bay Area? How do you hope these projects will add to the city?
BB: We just finished construction on two small projects in San Francisco: Trou Normand, a venture from Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole fame, and Sightglass on 20th Street. I love the way that our projects become elements of the fabric of our city, and I love it when they become destination living rooms for San Francisco’s densely-packed urban dwellers. We are currently designing a new restaurant in Chinatown. Led by a successful local chef, this project aims to combine the casual nature of Chinese street food with the local, organic, handmade elements that the Bay Area food scene is famous for. Upscale Chinese isn’t a new concept, but it’s exciting to be a part of one of the first projects that brings it back to the heart of Chinatown.
ID: What new building projects are San Franciscans talking about right now?
BB: The impact of the tech industry on San Francisco’s socioeconomic state is the hot topic of the moment. It starts with tech companies using their funds on tenant improvement projects (a project type we specialize in). Many tech headquarters are used to represent the brand, recruit and retain employees, and build confidence in potential investors. The competition for the best office space in San Francisco has driven up the commercial lease rates and dramatically changed the landscape of commercial real estate.
The increase in wealthy, young tech workers has also affected the residential market, especially when it comes to small apartments and condominiums. Our firm does not design condos, but the conversation around the new mid-rise condo structures popping up around town is on our radar. It’s important to understand the greater impact of every new architectural insertion into our city. We often hear the critique that many of these new structures fail to do so.
ID: Is there an SF project currently under development, in the planning stage, or recently completed that you find particularly interesting?
BB: I enjoy the new SFPUC building near the Civic Center. My favorite aspects are the wind-energy harvesting sculpture on the north façade by Ned Kahn and the dashboards in the café displaying energy consumption and production in the building.
ID: What are some of the current debates in architecture and design in the city?
BB: The city is surrounded by water, and over the last 20 years, much of the waterfront has been redeveloped (both public and private)—lots of glitz and a few historic gems, such as the Exploratorium by EHDD. We are currently working on a 30-year-old restaurant-bar and boat maintenance facility on the east waterfront. It will retain an industrial, working class aesthetic to (hopefully) provide some relief to the glitz.
ID: Is there a particular trend that SF architecture and design is following at the moment?
BB: With the high cost of living and the new wealth coming in to the city, we are experiencing what I call the “New Yorkification” of SF. While the spaces are getting smaller, we look for every opportunity to insert design. We just finished a 610-square-foot two-bedroom apartment (11’9” wide by 64’ long), that sits practically under the freeway, but on a nice tree-lined block. Our client is an enlightened developer who understands the value of design and agreed to completely gut and redo the unit, albeit in large part due the high rent he can get for the space. It is both inspiring to design beautiful small living spaces and frustrating that these are unaffordable to most people. Overall, I believe the density of San Francisco is a main contributor to our culture. The renovation and construction of smaller apartments allows residents the minimal private space they need while encouraging them to branch out and experience the city.
ID: How would you characterize the architecture and design scene historically compared to today?
BB: San Francisco has always been a neighborhood-centric and densely-populated city. The development of retail and commercial corridors, the increase of public spaces, parklets, mini-parks, and the variety of living spaces enhances the original values.
ID: There has been a lot of talk about how today’s tech boom is impacting San Francisco’s culture. What impact do you think it’s having? Some people seem to feel that it’s destroying San Francisco’s soul. Do you think that’s a valid concern?
We are mindful of the impact of the tech industry is having on our local economy and real estate market, and we understand that we live in a bubble. However, San Francisco’s soul is always evolving. We live in the most resilient city in the world. The impact that the tech industry has is major. But to say that our city is destroyed by an influx of a new demographic of people is not very San Francisco. This city can handle it. History has proven that San Francisco can handle anything. (You can probably guess that I’m channeling Season of the Witch , the book by David Talbot.)
ID: What part of the city is most inspiring to you?
We love the neighborhood where we have our office (northern edge of the Tenderloin—Nob-Loin, Tendernob, Lower Polk). Since we bought our building in early 2012, we’ve seen an amazing number of positive developments including thoughtful interventions that maintain the mid-rise physical character of the neighborhood, such as the Stanley Saitowitz-designed Blanc Condos, and storefront art and retail spaces with unique and well-curated selections of objects (Cavalier Goods, In Fiore Perfume, to name a few).
ID: Boor Bridges seems to have become the go-to firm for third-wave coffee roasters. What connection do you see between businesses like Four Barrel and Sightglass and the work you do?
BB: Roasting coffee is a mundane task that has been elevated to the sublime. We revel in the mundane and the sublime. Our coffee clients are first generation explorers, unafraid to take risks and supportive of our design interests, including crafted and intricate custom details and lighting, honest and exposed materiality, adaptive reuse of existing industrial spaces, and the merging and organizing of manufacturing and retail functions in one communal space.
ID: Many of your projects include interesting indoor-outdoor components. Where does your interest in incorporating the outdoors in your designs stem from?
BB: We love the outdoors. Our office is made up of hikers, bikers, snowboarders, and campers. We know the value that a small bit of well-designed outdoor space can have on the overall spatial experience, and we push our clients to add an aesthetic plant program into the design—be it a plant program for an office TI, a vertical garden, or a farm master plan. The other nice thing about gardens is that they are ever changing and cannot be pinned down. Gardens require you to be in it for the long term, as they often have their mature identity 10 to 20 years after their implementation. A long gestation also helps to not take oneself too seriously.