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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. 

As for the all-important acoustics, Cavagnero worked closely with Sam Berkow, an acoustician best known for his work on Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. “Sam would say, ‘You can’t do that. It just isn’t done,’” says Cavagnero, grinning. “And we’d say, ‘OK, just pretend that we could—what might that look like?’” In a typical concert hall, he explains, only 50 percent of the sound comes from the instruments themselves; the other 50 percent comes from the speakers. But the SFJazz Center is designed to accommodate unplugged acoustic performances as well as acts that use a sound system. The theater’s walls and ceiling are built from a graded system of painted black concrete, insulation material, mesh, and slats of solid white oak that absorb and disperse sound. “If you’re a purist, you’ll be able to hear the fingers hitting the keys,” Cavagnero says, striking his hard hat as if it were piano ivories.

And then, of course, there’s all that glass. Cavagnero and Berkow employed a battery of design innovations to ensure that it won’t compromise the acoustics within, including meticulously graded insulation within the theater’s ceiling and sidewalls, airtight soundproof doors, and double panes of hermetically sealed glass outside. The extras were worth it, Cavagnero says, because the glass is crucial to the way he wants the building to draw in the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the interior rooms are visible from the street, including the café kitchen (owned by Slanted Door chef Charles Phan), the rehearsal spaces, and even parts of the stage itself. Transparent doors on both ends of the second-floor lobby fold out to open-air terraces.

In contrast to the grand and venerable War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall a couple of blocks away, here you’ll be able to watch the musicians play, admire the murals by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet, grab a drink at the café bar, and peer into the rehearsal spaces—all without a ticket. “Compared to the opera and symphony buildings, SFJazz is like a screaming, impetuous teenager,” says Cavagnero. “It wants to be seen and heard.”


Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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