The Edge: Margie O’Driscoll Unbuilds San Francisco

August 30, 2013 4 min read

MargieOdriscoll - Unbuilt San Francisco

Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do

Margie O'Driscoll: I am the Executive Director of AIA San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design. I've had the amazing good fortune to work with two co-curators on this exhibition Danielle Rathbun and Emi Stielstra.

Novedge: I can't wait to visit the upcoming Unbuilt San Francisco. Can you talk about the concept behind this exhibition?

Margie O'Driscoll: The inspiration behind this exhibition was two fold: I've always been intrigued with an SFMOMA exhibition called, "Visionary San Francisco" in 1989. And then when I saw an "UnBuilt Washington DC" exhibition curated by the National Building Museum in Washington DC, I knew it was time to think local.

I also thought it was an interesting challenge to make the theme of an architecture festival be projects that weren't ever built, since we always think about architecture as the built form. And then there was this terrific possibility of weaving storytelling about San Francisco history into the framework of the buildings of the City by considering the grand visions that never came to be. 

Unbuilt San Francisco - Architecture and the City Festival

Novedge: How did you manage the curatorial efforts and logistics of an exhibit spanning 5 venues? 

Margie O'Driscoll: Well, the great news is, we couldn't have asked for better partners. The curator at the Environmental Design Archives at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, Waverly Lowell, is one of the most knowledgeable people on architectural history of the Bay Area. She told me that she and SF Chronicle Urban Design editor John King were thinking about doing a similar exhibition and I suggested that we collaborate and make it a centerpiece of the 10th Architecture and the City festival. We were so lucky to have this important support as we began our work!

As we mentioned the exhibition to others, California Historical Society, SPUR and the San Francisco Public Library, they all asked to join. What makes this exhibition so remarkable is that each venue has different projects with a slightly different focus- so visitors expand their knowledge with each visit.

Novedge: What are some of your favorite "unbuilt" projects?  

Margie O'Driscoll: Oh my, that's like asking a mom her favorite child! There are a couple of projects that always make me pause. One is the amazing scheme for a United Nations in San Francisco. Many people don't know that the UN Charter was signed here in San Francisco and many thought this should be the home for the United Nations… but a last minute land donation in New York City moved this august body east.

United Nation Building - Unbuilt San Francisco

And of course, William Perreira's first scheme for the Transamerica Building wasn't a pyramid at all! I'm also drawn to the futuristic buildings designed by Fougeron Architecture in Cultivating the Urban Eutopia.

Transamerica_Pereira - Unbuilt San Francisco

Novedge: What can we glimpse about the city of San Francisco from these buildings that never came to be?

Margie O'Driscoll: Sometimes buildings that we hate… grow on us over time. For example, when the Transamerica Building was first proposed it was vociferously opposed by the AIA. Over time, of course, it has become such a landmark that the AIA Board of Directors recently voted it one of the most important buildings in the City.

For centuries, we used basic materials to build our buildings, like wood, brick, stone and glass. But in the last century there has been great experimentation with materials due to the rapid advancement and technological innovation. This is an exciting possibility as we seek to create more sustainable buildings to lower our carbon footprint.

Novedge: Architecture and the City turns 10 this year: out of 40 festival events, what would be your top recommendations for first time attendees?

Margie O'Driscoll: When we started the festival a decade ago, we hosted a two day Home Tour program and a film series at the San Francisco Public Library. The Home Tours, (Sept. 28-29) continue to be by far the most popular program of the festival. We draw people from all over the US and even abroad to spend days looking at modern residential architecture and meeting the designers. It is also a rare opportunity to visit an affordable housing project (Sunday only).The walking tours are also a terrific way to rediscover neighborhoods that you thought you knew. 

And of course, if you want to have a great afternoon, the "Walking and Playing Urban Putt," can't be beat. Restaurateur Steve Fox and architect Matt Hollis have teamed up create a wild, 18 hole mini golf course with a distinctly San Francisco theme on September 14.

Most importantly, none of the festival events requires any training in architecture- we program the festival as a chance to share the architecture of the City with a broad audience. If you are ever curious about the design of your home, neighborhood or the City, this festival is a great chance to learn—and have fun!


Unbuilt San Francisco opened this month and will be on view until the end of the year at four different venues around the city: AIA San Francisco / Center for Architecture + Design, California Historical Society, SPUR, The Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Details here.

The Opening Party will take place on Friday September 6, from 5-8 pm, at the California Historical Society.

And you can find out more about the 10th Architecture and the City Festival here.




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