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A $50 Million Transformation Remakes the San Francisco Art Institute

Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects designs a beautiful white box at Fort Mason.


Artists execute a mural by Alicia McCarthy at the new SFAI campus.

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From military storehouse to nonprofit to art school utopia, the shed at Pier 2 at Fort Mason Center has had many lives.

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Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects transformed the 67,000-square-foot space.

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Deep wooden risers serve a dual purpose—they’re an access point to the mezzanine and a modern take on old-school bleacher seating.

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For the majority of its life, the cavernous Pier 2 shed at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture was defined by ordered chaos. With wooden crates and parcels piled nearly to its ceiling, the 67,000-square-foot space was once the temporary home to a sizable portion of the 23.5 million tons of military supplies that poured into and out of the former army port. Shrugging off its military roots in 1977 to reopen as a nonprofit under the Herbst Pavilion moniker, Pier 2 then played host to hundreds of events and exhibitions. Now it’s home base for about 160 graduate art students enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute.

A $50 million transformation brought more than 160 studios, 3,300 square feet of public exhibition space, and a woodshop and digital media suite to the former warehouse. The new campus is a linchpin for Fort Mason, which houses nearly two dozen nonprofits and arts organizations, including the SFMOMA Artists’ Gallery, Flax art store, and BATS Improv. Students began moving in this August; in November, it opens to the public.

Until now, SFAI graduate students worked in smaller facilities in Dogpatch that college president Gordon Knox describes as “fun” but “irregular.” (Knox hopes to organize a coalition of cultural supporters to preserve the old Dogpatch studios for use by Bay Area artists.) With soaring ceilings, generous natural light, and an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the students’ new home at Pier 2 is a marked upgrade.

San Francisco–based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, recently named the nation’s best by the American Institute of Architects for advancing “issues of social consciousness and environmental responsibility,” led the renovation of the building. The architects conceived of the structure “as more of a scaffold or kind of an armature for the art to occur,” says Ryan Jang, senior associate at LMSA.

After reinforcing steel and cement corroded by bay waters and installing a massive solar array and radiant heating, the key task was preserving the building’s significant volume. Galleries and workshops reside on the main floor; studios live on the second, and all are arranged around a central mezzanine that opens to the ceiling, supported by historic trusses that can be viewed from nearly every vantage point. Studios have partial walls about eight feet high to further emphasize the campus’s vast proportions, and glass roll-up garage-style doors line the building’s exterior to provide views across the pier. (When open, they also help circulate cool bay air.) As a nod to the past, the floor is sliced through with concrete of a slightly different color to mark the tracks trains once used to haul freight into the shed.

Connecting the floors are two white oak–clad staircases that double as gathering spaces. The smaller of the two also serves as a reception desk and provides bench seating; the larger staircase can transform into bleacher seats punctuated by a landing that can be used as a stage for classes or impromptu performances. “We kind of saw it as a way to connect the two levels,” Jang says. It also serves as a literal conversation piece, “providing opportunities for people to talk.” The stairs terminate at a large wall, an homage to SFAI’s Chestnut Street campus, with its famed Diego Rivera mural. Here, alumna Alicia McCarthy was commissioned to create a mural on the blank space presiding over the mezzanine: a vibrant array of wiggling, multicolored lines against a black background, the first in a series of public commissions the school is planning as part of its push to turn the campus into an arts destination.

The hope is that the remaining white spaces will also inspire creativity. The building, Jang says, is a “wide-open space, ready for color to happen and ready for action, ready for a new life to take place within it.” Ordered chaos again reigns at Pier 2.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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