Jensen Architects embraces the complexity of San Francisco as design inspiration

The Bay Area maintains a grip on its history. The turn-of-the-century Victorian homes and corner shops that line the streets of San Francisco, in particular, are carefully protected by historic preservation guidelines that protect the city’s image from the rapid growth of the local tech industry. – and, supposedly, the cultural changes caused by this growth. While some architectural firms might view these guidelines as binding, Jensen Architects’ office has treated them as a productive context for its design practice since its inception in 1994. “Looking back at what we’ve done in the region,” founder and director Mark Jensen says, “much of our work derives its character from the Bay Area’s unique climate, topography, and historical fabric.”

Working from his SoMa neighborhood office on Market Street, the central axis of San Francisco’s commercial district, JENSEN has completed several projects that engage in an intimate dialogue with the city’s revered historic architecture without succumbing to it. “We are ultimately concerned with building buildings of our time,” Jensen said. “And you can recognize the context in a much more sophisticated way than just repeating the bay windows ad nauseam.” The JENSEN brand is subtly scattered across the city, but it can best be described as attention to material detail, compositional clarity and community contribution.

Through this combination, every project JENSEN has designed for the public has been assessed against the principles of “social infrastructure,” a concept borrowed from social scientist Eric Klinenberg to describe methods for reversing social inequality. commonly embedded in the built environment. In the Bay Area, which has become more expensive and economically stratified in recent years, the “social infrastructure” provided by JENSEN often arrives in the form of parks, playgrounds, galleries and other spaces that offer “level playing fields” for the benefit of all residents of a city that is increasingly financially inaccessible to most.

David Ireland House, 2015

(Henri Cam)

David Ireland, a San Francisco-based sculptor locally praised for his use of found objects and his humble approach to art production, lived in a large Italianate-style house in the Mission district which he considered his greatest sculpture over the past 34 years. his career. Following his passing in 2009, arts philanthropist Carlie Wilmans commissioned JENSEN to preserve the house as a permanent offering to the public with a permanent installation of the late artist’s work while introducing an exhibition space for talent. premises to ensure Ireland’s open and generous presence in the community. would persist. Adding another room to the property, JENSEN broke away from the ornate detailing of the home to design an additional garage-style gallery finished in weathered concrete. The company also installed an elevator in the 135-year-old structure to accommodate all visitors to the permanent installation on the second floor.

Cole Valley Residence, 2021

a modern kitchen
(Joe Flecher)

At the foot of San Francisco’s distinctive Sutro Tower, JENSEN designed the Cole Valley Residence as a stack of volumes individually shaped by the neighborhood’s complex topography and adjacent scenic landscapes. “Even as a private home, it has a public feel as an outward expression of what the neighborhood offers,” said Mark Jensen. The textured concrete base captures the surrounding hillside, allowing the remaining floors to respond freely to the immediate context of the site and the internal programmatic desires of its clients. From the street, the main living space appears to float cantilevered above the glass pavilion on the third floor, behind which is a sunken backyard filled with native landscaping and a walkway leading to an idyllic outdoor lounge.

Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, 2021

a dynamic playscape with a slide
(Bruce Damonte)

Located in the oldest and most densely populated Chinatown in the country, Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground offers a large open space in a neighborhood with little to spare. Named after a locally raised Chinese-American basketball player, the playground was completely renovated in collaboration with CMG Landscape Architecture to serve as a multi-purpose community center that cascades gently over steep terrain. “The dramatic change in elevation across the playground has forced us to think about how to make a number of slide platforms and jungle gymnasiums as accessible as possible for every visitor, young or old. “, noted Mark Jensen. A pre-existing clubhouse on the site has been repurposed into a multipurpose space with the addition of a mural by local contemporary artist Julie Chang and an interior stadium staircase.

India Basin Coastal Park, 2022

rendering of a public installation in a park
(Courtesy of Jensen Architects)

Located in southeast San Francisco along the bay, India Basin Shoreline Park is currently separated from the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood by urban trash and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. “Just up the hill from this huge park is all this affordable housing,” JENSEN manager Emily Gosack said, “and yet there’s no connection to the park.” In collaboration with the landscape architecture firm GGN, a project by Jensen Architects opens up the park to the neighborhood. Now under construction and ready for completion
by August 2024, the renovation will preserve the remains of a 154-year-old shipyard while opening up the site to pedestrian pathways lined with native landscapes. The company is also restoring the former Shipwright’s Cottage as a visitor center and classroom while designing additional contextual structures on the site.

Shane Reiner-Roth is a lecturer at the University of Southern California.

Sharon D. Cole