Flexible Architecture for a Cultural Landscape

The Presidio, a national park and a cultural landscape rich with natural, cultural and military history, demands a program for the public and a building that is suited to the park. In November, the Presidio Trust initiated a search for ideas for a new cultural institution on the former Commissary building site (currently occupied by Sports Basement) on Crissy Field.

EHDD teamed with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to submit a concept proposal along with 15 other teams. Our team was selected, along with two other finalists, to participate in a summer-long competition to design a building for our programming concept, the “Presidio Exchange” (PX), featuring a 15,000 sq. ft. flexible event space for not one, but many cultural institutions.

Evident in falling audience and visitor attendance, old institutional models such as traditional museums or theaters are becoming outdated. The James Irvine Foundation published a study on how cultural institutions need to adapt. The study suggests that audiences prefer cultural events and art exhibits that are engaging and immersive.

Responding to this imperative and establishing a new 21st century model for a cultural institution, the Presidio Exchange is a cultural center that is more flexible, experimental, and programmed by multiple outside institutions. Envisioned are a wide variety of community events, from a Latino/a Art and Dance festival, to a Hack-a-thon for innovative technology, to a National Geographic event for children to learn about nature.

We are looking at architectural precedents like the Craneway in Richmond, CA and the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and successful landscapes like the Highline in New York and Millennium Park in Chicago. As a flexible space for many public programs, the Presidio Exchange is well-suited to its park setting, yet from an architectural standpoint therein lies the challenge.

Historically, the discipline did not use the words “flexible” and “architecture” in the same sentence. A building’s structure is, by nature, fixed. Programmatically, flexible spaces are also relatively new to the history of our discipline, but in order to be sustainable we need our buildings to be adaptive and resilient, serving a constantly shifting program, one that draws all types of people and serves the city’s large and small institutions.

The architecture of the PX reflects contemporary culture and values, just as it respects and reflects the past. In hopes of cutting down on waste and cost, and to address the history of the site, we have chosen to reuse 26,000sf of the existing structure, which was originally designed as a commissary—basically a military grocery store.

We have chosen to reuse the part of the commissary’s “Dry Storage Area” primarily because of its taller, wider-spanning structure, better suited to large events. This has proved a challenge, as we are grappling with the constraints of the existing structure, its seismic quality, and its ability to host larger stage-focused events. After quite a bit of study it is apparent that with a bit of adaptation, the old structure has the potential to provide the flexible space needed—and function as a formally remarkable contrast to the new portion of the building.

Lower carbon footprints, net-zero energy goals, and bio filtration gardens are examples of common sustainable design goals in EHDD’s projects. While we will always push for these traditional sustainable design components, these only address environmental issues, a fraction of what is needed for a healthy urban eco-system.

In the case of the Presidio Exchange, the Parks Conservancy’s concept for programmatic flexibility and the objective to include a diversity of local and international institutions are the most progressive sustainable aspects of the project. As a result, its flexibility also addresses socio-economic issues, and most importantly creates an adaptable and resilient institution, which moves with the ebb and flow of cultural exchange and demographic change.

The Presidio is technically termed a “cultural landscape” due to its history and various manmade transformations over the years. The architecture-related disciplines of planning and landscape architecture have been designing flexible, constantly changing public space for more than 20 years in a theoretical framework termed “Landscape Urbanism.”

So as we complete the architectural proposal for the commissary site, we must make the building akin to a landscape— flexible, constantly changing, adaptable, and open. Situated in a cultural landscape that has dramatically changed over the last 200 years, the Presidio has the perfect architectural design project to attempt to embody such a dynamic.

Sign the petition to let the Presidio Trust Board of Directors know that you support the Presidio Exchange!

Visit the Presidio Trust’s Former Commissary Site at Crissy Field website for more competition information.

Alex Spautz