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Cavagnero broke many rules of concert-hall design to create the SFJazz Center, starting with the glass walls that sheathe the entire building.

The main concert stage. Courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates.


A rendering depicting the building from Franklin Street. Courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates.




An Architect with Jazz Hands

Mark Cavagnero makes 35,000 square feet feel almost intimate at the new SFJazz Center, opening January 21st. 

OVER THE PAST 12 YEARS, Mark Cavagnero has designed 20 high-profile buildings in the Bay Area and won scores of awards. But as I tail him around the sawdust-covered site of his latest baby—the SFJazz Center in Hayes Valley, opening January 21st—it feels like I’m chasing after a kid showing off his new fort. Clad in his favored ensemble of layered knits and a professorial blazer, topped with a hard hat and a neon-orange construction vest, the ruggedly handsome architect ducks steel beams and vaults up plywood ramps, giddy with excitement as he chats with contractors, strokes finishes, and snaps iPhone pics. Painters have arrived; seats are being installed this week; ceramic mural tiles are en route—and Cavagnero thinks it’s all “really cool.”

Indeed, the SFJazz Center has been a labor of love for the 55-year-old, who is known for prominent commissions like the airy ODC Theater, the Oakland Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Sunset’s light-flooded Sava Pool. A lifelong John Coltrane fan, Cavagnero saw this endeavor as an attempt to create a new chapter in San Francisco’s storied jazz history—a past that includes the glory days of the ’40s and ’50s, when the Fillmore’s smoky nightclubs played host to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. And he’s breaking many rules of concert-hall design to do it. (The first one hits you before you even enter the building: The entire exterior is sheathed in glass, typically the enemy of acousticians for its sound-deflecting quality.)

To get into “the mindset of what jazz should feel and look like,” Cavagnero says, he and SFJazz founder Randall Kline crisscrossed the country touring jazz clubs, classic concert halls, dive bars, and even Unitarian churches. In the end, major inspiration came not from a New Orleans nightclub or a vaunted theater, but from Boston’s Old South Meeting House, a 1729 building that served as the launching ground for the American Revolution. Sound quality wasn’t one of its selling points, but Cavagnero and Kline loved the space. “It had the intimacy and intensity we were looking for,” says Cavagnero. “It’s more about people coming together than who’s onstage.” Clearly, the center is slated to be far more than a typical jazz club. Its concert space will encompass 9,000 square feet and seat up to 700 people; the building will also include rehearsal spaces, an 80-person ensemble room, and a digital recording classroom. The project, which is expected to cost $64 million (mostly from private donors, including one who gave $20 million anonymously), presented a unique challenge: How do you evoke the close-knit feeling of a typical jazz joint in a building the size of a city block?

Cavagnero’s first convention-toppler was doing away with the standard proscenium arch that forms a barrier between the audience and the performers. Gone, too, is the dreaded nosebleed section—instead, audience members will surround the stage on all sides. The steeply raked seating means that no ticket holder will be more than 45 feet from the performers, and the first three rows of seats will be removable to allow for standing room and dancing. Although the electronics are complex—as many as 28 electricians worked simultaneously on the site during construction—there will be few visible speakers, strobes, or light fixtures. “We wanted it to feel very focused and effortless,” says Cavagnero. To enhance the nightclub feel, there will be three bars, and the custom theater seats will even have built-in cup holders.