Rugged Land’s End Lookout Deserves It’s Own Look
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Michael Macor / The Chronicle
The two stone lions that guard the main entrance off Point Lobos Avenue are replicas of relics from Sutro Heights across the way.
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It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate building for aptly named Lands End than the confident outpost of concrete and glass that officially opened Saturday.
Assertive and inviting at once, the compact structure commands one of San Francisco’s best sites – a cliff above the ruins of Sutro Baths, up from the Cliff House with a forested backdrop on three sides. The architectural response is tough rather than meek, and it enriches a location that already is one-of-a-kind.
Lands End has been a destination since the 1860s, when the first of several predecessors to today’s Cliff House restaurant could be reached by a toll road that is now Geary Boulevard, 50 cents a ride on a horse-drawn omnibus from Portsmouth Square. Tycoon Adolph Sutro opened his Sutro Baths in 1896 with seven indoor pools as well as an amphitheater and later an ice skating rink.
The crowds kept coming after fire destroyed the Baths in 1966. What greeted them for the next 30 years were stunning views of the Pacific Ocean – and threadbare trails, a dirt parking lot and the tangle of tour buses outside a Cliff House that included a cramped visitors center.
The new building designed by San Francisco’s EHDD is the latest in a series of upgrades that follow the 1993 master plan for the Sutro Historic District done by the National Park Service and implemented in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
Another key player has been the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, which has donated $8.6 million to the Lands End efforts up to and including the Lookout.
As with other improvements, which include a rebuilt Cliff House and paved trails accessible to people in wheelchairs, the offering here is aimed at both one-time tourists and devoted regulars.
There are bathrooms for the public, and storage areas for conservation programs. A small food counter offers to-go items. The centerpiece of the 4,100-square-foot structure, though, is a central space with educational exhibits amid merchandising kiosks, learning and commerce both geared to the locale.
The flat-topped modern building hunkers down on an exposed perch where the salty fog and winds “will beat a building to death if you’re not prepared,” says Jennifer Devlin of EHDD. Four thick walls of concrete run east to west, separating the building’s functions and extending into an inland plaza. The long bars tie the buildings into the landscape of low freshly planted dunes; they should also help deflect the often-brutal gusts.
On the side that faces the Pacific, the emphasis is exactly where it ought to be – the shop and cafe are lined by 14-foot-high panels of floor-to-ceiling glass. The public rooms angle slightly northwest, making the Marin Headlands part of the show. Clerestory windows above the concrete walls reduce the glare within the handsome space with its exhibit and sales areas designed by the small local firm Macchiatto.
Other touches make the connection to place without making a fuss.
Some are obvious, such as the two stone lions that guard the entrance off Point Lobos Avenue and are replicas of relics from Sutro Heights across the way. Some are subtle: The reclaimed redwood siding on the building’s east side has the raw simplicity of what critic Lewis Mumford dubbed the “Bay Region Style” in 1947.
It all comes together
The final cultural overlay is a quest for sustainability that extends beyond the solar panels on the roof. The structure is naturally ventilated, restrooms included. Recycled materials are used throughout, including oyster shells for mulch along the dunes.
Inevitably, the Lookout’s presence has stirred a reaction. It’s snug against the paved esplanade along the cliff; it pops into the view of drivers as Geary Boulevard becomes Point Lobos Avenue. The architecture doesn’t try to echo the long-gone Victoriana of the Cliff House that existed from 1896 to 1907.
But that’s part of what makes the experience so special. The siting, the materials, the design philosophy – all are attuned to a remarkable urban encounter with the natural forces that still shape this region.
Lands End is not a timid location. How fitting that the final building likely to rise here isn’t timid, either.
King is the San Francisco Chronicle‘s urban design critic. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle