History and Placemaking with Ruth Todd, FAIA

Collaborations, Community, Project Types, Renovations, Site
Emily Gosack, AIA, LEED AP, Principal
Ruth Todd, FAIA, is a principal and board chair of Page & Turnbull, an architecture, planning, and preservation firm headquartered in San Francisco. She spoke with JENSEN principal Emily Gosack, AIA, LEED AP about history, placemaking, and how architecture bridges the two.

Emily Gosack (EG): San Francisco’s waterfront from Mission Bay to Hunters Point is undergoing a remarkable transformation, and Page & Turnbull is involved in a lot of these projects, including India Basin Shoreline Park. How do you see the role of historic preservation and cultural resources planning in giving shape and character to this new development, and retaining a connection with place and the city?

Ruth Todd (RT): One could think generically about the history of this portion of the waterfront, but each area of the waterfront has its own story to tell, whether it’s the Scow Schooner Boatyard history, versus the later military history. It’s our responsibility to dig down deeply, to help make sure the best stories are being told and to understand what is more precious versus less precious along the way. At India Basin, it’s the Shipwright’s Cottage and how that little cottage related to the waterfront. And I feel we’ve been able to help the design team figure out how to position that story within the larger project, in a way that’s contributing to the transformation. This includes the thinking about form and materiality of the new construction as well as GGN’s site plantings and site work materiality. So the cottage is not just this little remnant off to the side of this huge transformative project, but it’s integrated, and its story is reinforced.

1928 India Basin hulks SFPL AAB-8954
Shipwright Cottage Historic Compilation

EG: That’s a great example. I recall that one of the guiding documents for historic preservation described “the village-like character of the boatyard complex,” and that evocative language, in particular, was really helpful. I would liken it to the difference between performance-based design and prescriptive codes. The language gave us a sense of what we were trying to achieve without being overly prescriptive about how the structures should look. That allowed us to interpret the guidelines in a way that was a little more abstract in terms of building form.

RT: Page & Turnbull also has been working on this site for a long time, and we had the opportunity to understand it well before the design team got involved. So, we could give you the information that helped, I think, create a better project. If we all had been brought on at the same time, we wouldn’t have been able to catch up. And I really credit SF Recreation and Parks with doing a good job of advanced planning. It doesn’t always happen that way.


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EG: With all of these large-scale developments that are underway along the waterfront, it seems we have limited opportunities to preserve the remaining structures and build connections with history. Thinking about a structure as small as the shipwright’s cottage, how can we approach the design of these new large-scale projects – so that we are respectful of the historic context, as residual as that may sometimes feel?

RT: Page & Turnbull has architects and architectural historians, and you need both skill sets to advise the design team, but timing also is important. because an architectural historian isn’t always going to be plugged in to all the design phases to know when to interject and guide. With the Shipwrights Cottage, the new construction is far enough away and at an appropriate scale that it hasn’t overwhelmed the cottage. And the site was designed with the cottage at a major entry point. So this tiny little cottage is going to get its share of attention because of the way the full team thought about the project from the very beginning.

900 Innes and India Basin Key Map 2
Image Courtesy of GGN

EG: Page & Turnbull also is working on the interpretive program for India Basin Shoreline Park. How is your team thinking about that, and in particular, the context of the India Basin Waterfront Parks Equitable Development Plan (EDP). There’s the history of the site and then there’s the more recent history of the neighborhood and community, and both inform the aspirations for the new park. How are you thinking about all of these threads and layers of culture and history that are coming together here?

RT: We’re working with GGN and Clearstory, the interpretive planners, to identify and develop the historic and cultural stories that are best told at this particular site – as a requirement of the City. At the same time, the community sought a lot of involvement in this project, and with SF Rec and Park’s support this became the Equitable Development Plan. Initially it was a parallel effort, then Rec and Park pulled it all together to tell broader stories up to contemporary times. 

We’ve started mapping out where the historical and cultural stories are best told within the project boundary, and Clearstory will develop the designs for the comprehensive interpretive plan. Through this process, we’ve identified more robust stories that go well beyond what was actually required, because there’s such good history there, but also because the community insisted on it, and Rec and Park saw an opportunity to shape a new approach.

India Basin Trail Perspective
Image Courtesy of GGN
Image Courtesty of GGN

EG: So the Equitable Development Plan now has folded back into the interpretation, and in turn, the team’s revisiting the interpretive program in the context of the EDP. In that way, the EDP is itself historic, and it reflects a shift in the way that jurisdictions or sponsors of large-scale developments now are thinking about community involvement. How the community influences a development process is itself an important story to tell. 

RT: And the importance of that kind of story might not have been on anybody’s radar five years ago.

India Basin Equitable Development Plan
Image Courtesy SFRPD

EG: To close, I want to zoom back out and ask a more general question. As architects, as we consider new construction in the city, what can we learn from the cultural resources perspective? What would you want us to consider?

RT: We have to work diligently to introduce new places and new buildings that will survive the test of time and positively contribute to the design and livability of the city beyond just the moment in time that influences our designs or materials. Putting a new building in the context of the long term adds a bit more sense of responsibility to provide something that may contribute in a more lasting way.

Image Courtesy of GGN

EG: I think about this in terms of a general shift towards things that feel more transient or temporary, the Instagram moment. How do we teach or cultivate a more long-term view in our thinking as designers?

A lot of it comes down to a value system for the kind of work you seek as an architect, because some projects, such as an office interior, simply don’t allow this kind of long-term approach. But for project types that have some longevity, I feel like really paying attention to detailing and materials that will hold up for a long time is important.

Image Courtesy of GGN

EG: To bring it full circle, buildings that have stood the test of time, even those that weren’t necessarily thought of as being important or civic in nature, add richness to our cities. When the San Francisco row houses were built, no one thought of these buildings being here in 200 years. And yet there’s a flexibility that has allowed us to reuse those buildings, and reinterpret them, and re-inhabit them. Understanding those qualities in a way that’s not necessarily precious is valuable, because, like you said, some things are precious and should be preserved, and others maybe less so, and should be open to reinterpretation. I think understanding why some buildings have stood the test of time is really important.

RT: The ability to be reused and stand for 100, 200 or 300 years is a testament to the quality of construction. It’s something people need to pay attention to. And there also is something intrinsic about the value of patina and not having everything be brand new. What’s so great about cities is that they did evolve over time and this continuity provides a sense of security and variety. The quality of design matters, but how well it’s built is what allows these layers to develop.

Shipwright Cottage Street Elevation