An Homage In Hardscape
Taking up about one-and-a-half city blocks, the two buildings of the apartment complex were designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emons.
Landscape Architecture by JETT Landscape Architecture and Design
Photos: Misha Burk Photography
Located in San Francisco's colorful and historic north waterfront area, the NorthPoint Apartments offer residents a location steps away from Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, North Beach and the Embarcadero. Taking up about one-and-a-half city blocks, the two buildings of the apartment complex were designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emons. The first building tower was constructed in 1969. The original landscape for the apartment complex was the design of Lawrence Halprin & Associates. Halprin (1916-2009) founded his firm in San Francisco in 1949. The Halprin team, led by Don Carter and Earl Byron McCulley, created an impressive collection of gardens, including two swimming pool courtyards, two fountain courtyards and one partial courtyard open to the east with views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Emulating the garden apartment lifestyle popular at the time of construction, the project was built before much of the landscape technology used today was invented. During the late '60s, flat podium slab construction, waterproofing materials, drainage, and protection of downstream water resources had yet to evolve to the degree seen in today's posttensioned and sloped-slab podium projects. The original courtyard drainage employed Orangeburg pipes--bitumenized fiber pipe made from layers of wood pulp and pitch pressed together--wrapped in filter fabric. That was the main subdrainage for tree wells. Pre-PVC plastic piping was laid flat under turf areas, which flowed by hydrostatic pressure to flat gutters encircling the courtyards into a few deck drains. It's a testament to the design and work that these materials lasted for over 40 years!
By the time the design team was contacted in 2012, the waterproofing and drainage system had failed, threatening the structural integrity of the building. The courtyards had to be demolished down to the structural slab. Halprin's landscape design--the paving, plantings and mature trees, some as tall as 35 feet--were gone.
The property ownership had not changed. The new design team was given the mandate to design and reconstruct the landscape with the latest materials and techniques, while creating garden courtyards that "embodied Halprin's original design," but not attempting to replicate the original designs. As a part of the research undertaken to understand Halprin's original intent, Earl Byron McCulley, FASLA (1993), the Halprin project manager at the time of the original project design, was invited to review the new design concepts. "You have done a splendid job of maintaining the spirit of the original designs while updating them in both feeling and materials," was
The project team's biggest challenge was the tight constraints imposed by the original flat-slab construction. JETT Landscape Architecture and Design and the team of architects, engineers, waterproofing consultants and contractors worked through these constraints to come up with a fresh take on Halprin's design. Adopting today's construction techniques, the team came up with designs to make room for new infrastructure and drainage, increasing soil depth to promote vigorous plant growth and incorporated positive drainage for the planters and paved areas.
The design more equitably separated the private patios from well-proportioned common spaces anchored by a sculptural water feature and a sculptural steel planter. These elements integrated the goal of better defining common and private spaces, while accommodating necessary state-of-the-art waterproofing and infrastructure. Each of the five courtyards (four enclosed on four sides, the fifth open on one side) is differentiated by geometry, plant palette and focal elements. The carefully proportioned spaces are animated by finely detailed abstractions of water, stone, metal and plantings, some borrowing directly from Halprin's original details and some new. Each courtyard has common space and semi-private patios for first-floor apartments and display Halprin's characteristic balance of well-designed useable space with mid-century garden features, lush planting and use of concrete, brick and metal.
By using the existing tree well depressions in the slab, building up new areas and applying extensive and intensive green roof planting strategies, the design/build team was able to increase the breadth and depth of soil areas to create a garden setting that was in keeping with Halprin's design.
Multiple water features were employed, with one or more designed for each courtyard. The project included a simple basalt column, a floating vertical stone slab, pools and water tables of polished black basalt and small cascades. A molded concrete trough replicating one of Halprin's original fountains is a subtle nod to the original designers.Water was used in combination with stone, steel and concrete to animate the courtyards with movement, sound and reflections of the building and sky.
Hardscaping played a critical role in reimagining the courtyards. Rich textures, colors, and forms were used on vertical and horizontal surfaces. Built up over lightweight concrete subslabs, the designs were carefully crafted to integrate slopes for drainage with strong visual patterns for a more contemporary geometry. Long vertical wall surfaces were sand blasted in intermediate sections creating visual breaks, and planter walls were detailed with sharp knife-edge bevels to reduce the visual impact of their six-inch width.
By combining each water feature with thoughtfully placed seating elements and bold hardscape designs, each new courtyard shares an abstraction of nature imprinted with the materials of human kind creating unique vignettes, where the original designs whisper from the past and speak to the present and future of this exceptional property.
- Landscape Architect: Bruce Jett, Principal, JETT Landscape Architecture and Design
- Architect: Ken Lidicker & Tammy Ng, Production, MBH Architecture
- Contractor: Paul Rodriguez, Swinerton Builders
- Concrete Contractor: Leo Gutierrez, Dolan Concrete Construction
- Irrigation Consultant: Jose Cruz, Russell D. Mitchell and Associates, Inc.
- Structural Engineer: Russell Fudge, GFDS Engineers
- Water Feature Designer: Edison Bonjardim, Bonjardim Water Workshop
- Waterproofing: Ward Stevens, Ward Stevens Waterproofing
- Lighting: Gerard Westmiller, Sprig Electric