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Helen Diller Civic Center Playgrounds

The designers began to reimagine two playgrounds in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center Historic District in order to serve the growing number of families in the densely populated neighborhood. At the time, Civic Center Plaza was a space better known to be avoided, where San Francisco’s problems with homelessness were on full display. Existing playgrounds on the site were much past their prime and only added to the dilapidated feeling of the area. With the surrounding neighborhoods becoming the fastest growing residential area in the city, its new inhabitants were increasingly wanting to use the plaza as a neighborhood park. The new playgrounds needed a dual identity—an iconic space to draw tourists and large school groups and daycares, but also a daily play space for individual families to enjoy.

 

 

With the community and the many project stakeholders and agencies, the team began a visioning process to identify goals for the playgrounds. The key goals for the project were to create two equally great play areas, to be inclusive with play for all ages and abilities, to be safe and secure with well-lit spaces and open sight-lines, to create an enriched play experiences, to include a connection to nature and to consider comfort with seating.

 

 

The team developed an approach that put the play experience first. The core play experiences of surprise and delight, retreat and escape, explore and roam, experiment and investigate, and challenge and thrill served as the baseline for the designers from which they developed the play elements and landscape plan. From the public meetings, it became clear that these playgrounds needed to bring nature into this highly urban environment, respect the historic surroundings and most importantly, be unique to San Francisco.

Fog, as the weather pattern that all San Franciscans experience on a daily basis, became the unifying concept for the design. Its lightness and transparency played well with the need for open sightlines and a light touch on the plaza. The movement and beauty of fog served as artistic inspiration for the play structures. The mystery of fog injected an imaginative narrative element of the sky and weather into the design. The physical properties of fog inspired the engineers with fluid dynamic modeling and the purity of form-found shapes. But most of all, this idea of fog was something unique to San Francisco and that was experienced universally—across incomes, races, and languages.

Removing barriers at the corners of the plaza restored sight lines and feelings of safety. The barrier design is artistic and permeable, allowing visibility in and out. The scale of the pieces in the playground is large enough to help balance the space of the plaza with the surrounding Beaux Arts buildings. The climbable structures allow children to get up high enough to change their perspective and give them a place to watch the sky. To activate the adjoining space between the playgrounds, is one of the largest interactive floor light display installations in the country. The installation, “KARL” uses interactive projected light to create an open space that asks the question “What if San Francisco’s fog visited the plaza to play with visitors?” To create the effect of immersive fog with a personality, “KARL” incorporates computer-vision techniques as well as a fluid simulation based on characteristics of San Francisco’s fog.

These vibrant playgrounds anchor the larger plaza outside of City Hall, which frequently hosts cultural events. The site is surrounded by notable institutions with programs for children, including the Main Library, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Symphony. The weekday usage of the playgrounds has increased over 400 percent after project completion, averaging 191 people per day before renovation and then 900 people per day after renovation. As the headline of an October 23, 2018 article in the San Francisco Chronicle indicates, the ‘’SF Civic Center is now cleaner and safer —a place to play and have a bite … Civic Center’s progress so far could be a model for future efforts to reanimate run-down city corridors.” We hope this proves to be the case.

Structural architecture: Endres Studio Architecture Engineering, Civil Engineering: BKF Civil Engineering, Signage: Mayer/Reed, Light Play Features: Anti-Clockwise Arts, Lighting Design: Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design, Electrical: FW Associates
Project location: 55 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Design year: 2014
Year Built: 2018

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