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Garten's Ribbons at 50 United Nations Plaza, San Francisco, Calif.

By Michelle Medaris, Editor, LASN

Originally completed in 1936, the historic Arthur Brown-designed 50 United Nations Plaza Building in San Francisco was recently renovated by HKS Architects. Along with the building revamp, artist Cliff Garten re-envisioned the landscape with a twisty hardscape he calls "Ribbons."

For the hardscapes issue, LASN magazine sat down with Cliff Garten to discuss the scope of the "Ribbons" project located at 50 United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, Calif.

Ribbons is a landscape sculpture for the Art and Architecture program of the General Services Administration that was designed by artist, Cliff Garten, with support from landscape architect firm, Cliff Lowe Associates.

Artist Cliff Garten has completed more than 50 sculptures throughout the U.S. and Canada in collaboration with significant architecture, landscape architecture and engineering projects. While sought after for creating evocative and nuanced site-specific sculptures for civic projects, Garten also maintains an independent studio practice for the creation of small-scale sculptures and works on paper.


A grove of 32 white birch trees offer a vertical dimension between the ground plane and the six-story building's white brick walls. Deer fern, 'El Campo cape' rush and island alumroot fill the 16 plant beds.

Garten's artistic approach toward civic sculpture explores the expressive potential of infrastructure. He places his sculpture within the everyday as a way to re-imagine how civic infrastructure might perform beyond its basic function.

When it comes to infrastructure, Garten believes that engineers "have done a remarkable job of satisfying our needs, but not necessarily our desires." The diversity and depth of his civic practice testify to his mastery of increasing the sculptural expression of engineered public structures and places. By connecting people to places through sculptural material, social history and ecology, his civic sculptures locate the latent potential within a public space. Cliff Garten holds a MLA degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and received an MFA in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design.


According to Garten, courtyard fountains were part of Brown's design, however, they were never built when the building was occupied by the U.S. Navy during WWII. To complete the historical picture of the building, Garten added two contemporary granite fountains, which serve as gathering points at each end of the courtyard.

History Behind 50 United Nations Plaza
The six-story Beaux-Arts building, designed by Arthur Brown Jr., architect of San Francisco's City Hall and three other Civic Center landmark buildings, was first completed in 1936.

More than 50 years later, in 1987, the federal building earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. By 2007, however, the building was vacant. Two years later a $122 million renovation project was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and granted to HKS Architects. The landscape sculpture was commissioned by the General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program, which Cliff Garten won through an invitational competition, and based on his past work. "My goal was to create a center of energy for the building that aligned between a contemporary, sustainable design and the historic fabric of the architecture," Garten told LASN.


Four thousand and twelve feet of decomposed granite pathways wind their way through the sculptured landscape.

The sculpture, the center of this courtyard project, is 455 linear feet of rising, twisting and falling seat walls that depict flowing ribbons. This rhythmic sculpture was digitally cut in foam, from which fiberglass molds were created. The molds, which were fabricated by Quick Crete, were then used to make the recycled and cast concrete bench sculptures. The courtyard has 4,012 square feet of decomposed granite walkways, a fitting and aesthetically pleasing permeable surface for this high foot traffic area.


Because of the height and orientation of the building it was necessary to specify shade tolerant plants for the site, including island alumroot (seen here), which is also drought tolerant, garnering water efficiency credits under LEED.

At the middle of the space is a crosswalk split by a linear throughway leading to four-foot square granite fountains on either end of the terminating circular walks. The fountains are nestled in La Paz beach pebbles and uplit with 9-watt LED Hydrel 4800 Yoke mounted fixtures. According to Garten, the courtyard fountains were part of architect Brown's 1932 design, however, they were never built, as the U.S. Navy occupied the federal building during WWII.


The rhythmic, twisting seat wall sculptures were digitally cut in foam, from which fiberglass molds were created. Four hundred fifty-five linear feet of recycled concrete were cast by Quick Crete to fabricate the "ribbons."

As the six story height of the building does not allow for the courtyard to receive much light, it was important the courtyard trees and landscape be shade tolerant. Specified for the space is a grove of 32 birch trees, and 16 plant beds filled with deer fern, 'El Campo' cape rush and island alumroot. However, artistically, there was an entirely different reason. Garten explains: "Since the sculpture is about the ground plane, the birch trees provide a counterpoint of upward movement. Also, their white bark complements the white bricks of the building." The plants not only do well in low light, but are drought tolerant, which meets one of the LEED criterion.


It was important that the aesthetics of the landscape were just as pleasing to those inside the building looking out, as to those outside experiencing the site. Patrons can also enjoy the soothing water trickle from the four-square-foot courtyard fountains, which are nestled in La Paz beach pebbles.

Landscape lighting from the original build in 1936 includes eight light posts around the courtyard, which were refurbished and rewired to accept LED lighting. Other lighting includes 9-watt LED Hydrel 4800 Yoke mounted fixtures to uplight the fountains, and NP6-LED-BZ uprights by FX Luminaire used throughout the plant beds, to uplight the birch trees.


Landscape lighting includes NP6-LED-BZ uprights by FX Luminaire, which uplight the birch trees, 8 light posts from the original build that were rewired and refurbished to accept LEDs, and 9-watt LED Hydrel 4800 Yoke mounted fixtures, which uplight the courtyard fountains.

Design Team
Cliff Garten, Cliff Garten Studio
Landscape Architect
Cliff Lowe and Stephanie Stillman-Stephens, Cliff Lowe Associates
Michele MacCracken, HKS Architects

Construction Team
Building Contractor
Hathaway Dinwiddie
Landscape Contractor
Shooter and Butts

Quick Crete
Metal Arts Foundry
Fountain Supply
FX Luminaire


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October 20, 2019, 8:11 pm PDT

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