7 Surprising Structures That Would Have Transformed San Francisco

7 Surprising Structures That Would Have Transformed San Francisco

When you live in a city for a while, it begins to feel — for better or for worse — like every block is completely familiar. But there’s a heck of a lot of invisible history inherent in even the most recognisable sites. This month, San Francisco is celebrating its own unrealised gems; Unbuilt is the theme of the AIA’s monthlong Architecture and the City festival, with a series of special exhibitions showing bizarro SF.

Curators Margie O’Driscoll, Danielle Rathbun and Emi Stielstra started out researching alternate plans for major landmarks like Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, then expanded the scope to include present-day projects that will eventually become part of our urban silhouette. “Curating is about vision, aspiration, investigation, and dumb luck,” O’Driscoll tells Gizmodo of the search. “I hope visitors understand that the process of design is complicated and never, ever, easy — and the simplest designs can be the most difficult to achieve.”

Take a look at some of the striking might’ve-beens and will-be-soons below, and check out the calendar of Architecture and the City events going on through the rest of the month here.

Bay Bridge Urban Farm

Construction on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge finally finished up this week. The now-redundant adjacent structure span will be dismantled — which is supposed to take about three years — but in 2009, David Dana of Taller David Dana Arquitectura proposed that a series of modular, land-filled boxes fill in the gaps for an airborne take on farming.

Golden Gate Bay Levee

In 2009, spurred on by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s estimate that the waterway might rise as much as 55 inches over the next century due to global warming, Ruth Ranieri Architects proposed this pretty insane concept called Folding Water. The subaquatic ventilated levee that would regulate rising sea levels, harvest wave energy, and desalinate water.

Terrapin Station

For lots of folks, SF will always be the free-lovin’ home of hippies and ur-jam band The Grateful Dead. Terrapin Station, a 1998 plan by SMWM for a museum celebrating Jerry Garcia and co, never found a home for its proposed theatre, “multi-sensory psychedelic dance-hall,” live music venue and archive shrine.


Mark Cavagnero Associates’ original plan for San Francisco Jazz’s theatre would have been significantly larger and more dramatic than the much-loved building that was eventually built.

United Nations San Francisco

Once upon a time, San Francisco was almost home to the United Nations. After the UN charter was signed in the city in 1945, Vincent G. Raney proposed a skyscraper and adjacent, illuminated globe to mark the global HQ, which he imagined situated near Twin Peaks.

Alcatraz Center for Indian Life

Alcatraz is one of the most fascinating places you can visit in SF (or anywhere). From 1969 to 1971 — after it was a prison and before it was a tourist attraction — Native Americans occupied the island in an effort to claim it as their own, in response to their own land being forcibly taken away by the government. Architect Donald MacDonald proposed this plan for the Alcatraz Center for Indian Life, which included a cultural centre, school, museum, council chambers and shops.

Golden Gate Hydroelectric Power Plant

Marc L’Italien’s renderings depict a desalinisation plant installed on the Bay Area’s most recognisable icon. In the plan, tidal currents generate hydro-electric power underwater, which would be used to unsalt the Bay in a station above, ultimately providing potable water to residents. It looks a bit like a deco launch platform for a retro spaceship, but the proposal is actually from the recent past: 1995-1999.