Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP for American Conservatory Theater, the new performance venue, education center, and neighborhood gathering space, strengthens a local non-profit, revitalizes an abandoned, century-old cinema, and supports the regeneration of San Francisco’s Central Market district.
The renovation of The Strand, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), is a major milestone for San Francisco and the city’s preeminent theater company. American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) commissioned SOM to resurrect a nearly 100-year-old cinema to serve as an intimate second stage for A.C.T.’s full-staged productions, an education center, and a community gathering space.
Overlaying modern theater and architectural components on top of the raw backdrop of the original building, SOM’s design of The Strand inserted the diverse program into the shell of the existing structure, restored the façade, and strives to create inspiring civic theater out of the act of theater-going itself. SOM is one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world, with an 80-year reputation for design excellence and a portfolio that includes some of the most important architectural accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Following a soft opening in May, public opening in June with the West Coast premiere of Love and Information, and the completion of construction in July, The Strand is already supporting the mission of A.C.T., an almost 50-year-old non-profit arts organization. Located on Market Street between 7th and 8th Streets, three blocks from City Hall, the project is a highly visible symbol of change in a neighborhood that is recovering from decades of disinvestment. By cultivating the arts, activating an abandoned building, and stimulating economic development, the project has been critical to the ongoing success of the Office of the Mayor’s Central Market/Tenderloin Strategy for neighborhood revitalization.
Born of community partnership
The scope of The Strand’s renovation was complex and included adaptive reuse, historic preservation and restoration, structural retrofit, and the development of a sub-branded graphic identity.
A key design challenge of the project was how to transform a single-purpose building – a 725-seat, single-auditorium cinema – into a model of versatile functionality.
A.C.T.’s diverse programmatic needs included spaces for live theater and other performing arts, a Master of Fine Arts program through A.C.T.’s actor-training Conservatory, youth classes, rehearsals, new play development workshops, public events that range from casual to formal, concessions, and stage and event support. SOM’s design met these requirements by inserting three flexible public spaces into the shell of The Strand:
• a three-story lobby and gathering space with a ground floor cafe
• a proscenium theater with moveable risers that can seat 175 in a cabaret format or 283 in a traditional format
• a black box theater that can accommodate 90-120 seats in varying arrangements, as well as be used for rehearsals, classes, workshops, and events.
Reactivating the street
SOM’s design concept for the Strand was driven by the desire to expose the activity of the building and bring life back to a desolate section of San Francisco’s Market Street. The plan of the building, from how people move within it to where the new structural shear walls were placed, is organized around the goal of revealing the creativity embodied within the building.
This is accomplished by articulating a series of frames that showcase the building’s performance aspect.Inspired by the idea of engaging the audience
as performers, the design of the lobby creates a stage for theatergoers to see and be seen. Resembling a multi-level theatrical set, three-stories of exposed perforated metal stairways and cantilevered balconies surround a grand 60,000-cubic-foot void on three sides.
By dramatically opening up the lobby to the street, The Strand creates inspiring civic theater out of that act of theater going itself. An estimated 100,000 people will pass through this space during the theater’s first year of operation, bringing new life to San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood, an area being targeted by the City of San Francisco for economic revitalization.
Balancing past and future
Complementing the old with the new, SOM’s renovation strategy overlaid modern theater and architectural components on the raw backdrop of the century-old cinema, and preserved or rehabilitated as much of the building’s original structure and ornamentation as possible. Over 80 percent of the building’s existing superstructure, including the steel frame, exterior walls, ceiling, and roof, was reused and reinforced. Historically sensitive seismic upgrades were also made, particularly to protect the theater from any pounding from the neighboring building that might occur during earthquakes.
A project that stands out
The Strand is a small building that is making a big impact, both visually and civically. The façade has been painted a custom shade of red that cannot be ignored. Inspired by the vivacious personality of A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Carey Perlo , this red was chosen to highlight the historically preserved pieces of the façade, vibrate against the blue-green backdrop of the San Francisco Federal Building, and create a memorable spectacle that leaves a lasting impression.
The Strand also stands out as a watershed for the economic regeneration of San Francisco’s Central Market. The project serves as an anchor for the ongoing effort by the San Francisco Mayor’s O ce of Economic and Workforce Development, the Planning Department, and the O ce of the City Administrator to relocate or expand cultural organizations into the neighborhood.
With The Strand, A.C.T. joins Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Burning Man, CounterPULSE, and PianoFight, among others, in calling this neighborhood home. The project’s location makes it a crucial lynchpin between ongoing business and residential redevelopment to the southwest like Twitter’s Market Square and Dolby Laboratories headquarters, existing cultural and civic institutions in Civic Center like Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, and booming retail and tourism destinations to the northeast like the West eld Center and Moscone Center.