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All the Square is a Stage
Hardscape Recalls Union Square's Ecological and Cultural Past

All the Square is a Stage

The Philips/Fortheringham Partnership redesigned the Union Square in San Francisco, Calif. into a historic, entertainment center. The Square features easels, and light sculptures on the left side created by sculptor R.M. Fischer. The flooring consists of contrasting granite paving pattern, which serves as a remembrance to the long board tables set up in the square to feed the masses after the 1906 earthquake.


All the Square is a Stage

Granite was selected for the main hardscape material of the Square as a natural, durable material. The main central plaza is comprised of flame-cut granite paving over structural foam.


Union Square is a public plaza located in the heart of San Francisco's commercial district, with a rich history of serving as the city's commons since 1850. For the re-design of the plaza, April Philips Design Works joined forces with MD Fortheringham to form the Philips/Fortheringham Partnership and completed the Square in 2002.

Design Competition
Beginning in the 1970s, Union Square fell into disrepair at a time when visiting tourists had topped one million a year. In 1997, the city of San Francisco sponsored an international competition to redesign the square and selected "All the Square is a Stage" submitted by the Philips/Fotheringham Partnership as the winning design. The one block Square was redesigned to reinvigorate the aging historic park and improve the functionality and programming for this important civic space as the city's "living room."

The Nation's First Parking Garage Green Roof Park
The 2.6-acre site is built on a parking structure, making it one of the early pioneers of green roof technology when it was originally built in 1941. The one block public park is centered on the existing Dewey Monument, a memorial statue dedicated by the city in 1903. The new design celebrates San Francisco while embracing a central evolutionary design concept-a formal and programmatic open space solution organized on a set of bi-symmetrical cross-axes and stepped terraces. It is a well-loved city open space utilized daily by residents, businesses and tourists alike. A dynamic retail and entertainment district frames the Square. In the winter months, the Square is transformed into a holiday destination with an ice rink, the monumental Macy's Christmas tree and a giant Menorah for celebrations.



All the Square is a Stage

Custom bas-relief ceramic tiles are inset into the granite walls at two of the entry corners. The tiles depict native California plants by artist Vicki Saulls.


All the Square is a Stage

"Hearts of San Francisco" public art by SF General Hospital are displayed on one of the mini granite stages designed for street performers and artwork.


Public Space Shapes a City
Designers shape public space so that it subtly seeps into the neighborhood's collective consciousness over time. Union Square today represents that evolution. As a public park the Square's programing includes a variety of features designed to engage a broader spectrum of users, increasing the activity level both day and night. The technical resolution of topography and accessibility was challenging in a site that has over 22 feet of cross slope conditions and a structural concrete roof deck below the entire block. There was enough volume between the structural roof and the parking level below to provide depth for tree planted green terraces to transition between the existing slope of the parking structure roof and the street sidewalks surrounding the Square. These stepped granite and green terraces create multiple opportunities for people watching and gathering while creating a generous buffer from busy downtown streets.

Sustainable Materials and Public Art
The integration of the materials and public art into the design was inspired by local history, natural flora and the site's topography. The striped pattern pays homage to the Crocker Soup Kitchen's long board tables used for feeding the masses in the Square immediately after the 1906 earthquake. The contrasting granite paving colors in cool grey and warm peach symbolize the sand dune and native environment that originally covered the site centuries ago and helps to visually define and break down the large gathering space. Cast-in-place concrete planters are clad in a polished granite veneer to support the 27,000 square feet of intensive roof garden landscape area that makes up 30% of the site. Granite planters at two corner entries are engraved with an historic timeline of Union Square as well as an historic timeline of the mayors of San Francisco. Integrally colored cast-in-place concrete terraces with 6-inch radii edges to deter skateboarders create seating opportunities that step down from plaza to street level. Serious lunchtime activities anchor this edge of the Square. Sixteen custom bas-relief ceramic tiles, depicting native California plants and created by local artist Vicki Saulls are inset into the granite walls at the other two corner entries. Each corner entry has mini-stage pedestals for street performers made from split-face and flame cut granite.

A Social and Equitable Core
Spatially, the design responds to individual and group needs by shaping both intimate and grand subspaces. The Square provides for a wide range of social and cultural events and experiences, becoming a sustainable "stage" where the visitor is both the entertainer and the entertained. At its core, the design reinforces the social drama of people watching other people, both casually and as formal entertainment. At the time of its completion in 2002, Union Square received a national Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Since the redesign, the Square has only grown in its programming and vibrancy as a key city destination for all.



As seen in LASN magazine, October 2018.



Filed Under: HARDSCAPE, LASN
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November 14, 2018, 10:55 pm PST

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