First reviled as ‘wrong in any city,’ tower now hailed as bold signature
The Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco’s tallest and best-known tower. It’s a registered corporate trademark, a fixture on postcards – and proof that snap judgments on buildings can often be wrong.
Construction began 40 years ago this month over the loud objection of anyone who was anyone in urban design. The city’s top planner called the proposal “an inhumane creation.” The Washington Post’s critic recoiled at “a second-class world’s fair Space Needle.” Progressive Architecture magazine warned the impact on San Francisco would be “no less reprehensible than … destroying Grand Canyon.”
Instead, the 853-foot-tall tower that opened in 1972 has become a civic icon.
What the opponents missed at the time is that cities thrive on the unexpected, new twists as well as old treasures. They aren’t static creations, tightly controlled: The best ones evolve in sometimes startling ways, shaped by hubris as well as high ideals.
Viewed from this perspective, the Pyramid is a fitting addition to the skyline – even to many former foes.
“What’s good about the Pyramid overwhelms what’s bad about it,” says Henrik Bull, an architect who denounced the proposal at hearings and rallies. “It’s a wonderful building. And what makes it wonderful is everything that we were objecting to.”
If Transamerica had proposed a flat corporate box a few blocks to the south, there would have been no fuss.
But with Mayor Joseph Alioto at their side, the leaders of a then-little-known holding company booked space in the Fairmont Hotel on Jan. 27, 1969, to unveil what the next day’s Chronicle called “a pyramid so unusual it might have drawn a wink or a gasp from the Sphinx.”
At first, 1,000 feet
The proposal’s 1,000-foot height exceeded any hill in this city revered for its topography. The tapering shaft of concrete with a steep metal peak defied every architectural norm of the era. The location was on the north end of the Financial District at Montgomery and Washington streets, at the foot of Columbus Avenue on a site across from Jackson Square – then and now an atmospheric nook defined by brick survivors of the 1906 earthquake.
None of this bothered Alioto, or The Chronicle’s editorial proclaiming that the “needlelike shape thrusting skywards … will be a fitting adornment to this most fitting of all cities.”
Other people, though, had plenty to say.