Oct. 12, 2012

Lizzie Wallack

Opened in 2011, Proxy is a “temporary” commercial and performance venue in San Francisco, designed by Envelope A+D. Designed to be ever-changing, it offers an evolving experience for visitors, tailored to neighborhood conditions and interests. Proxy is an example of what Envelope terms “flexible urbanism”: projects that offer “more room for play, room for interpretation – not just a clearly defined set of goals that are stated and carried out in that exact same way until the end.”

The idea: Envelope responded to a call for proposals for multi-unit housing, as part of San Francisco’s plan for an area that had been reshaped by a past earthquake. However, when the economy crashed, the City’s plans for the site had to be reevaluated. “The Mayor’s office came back to us and said: ‘Now that the economy is crashing and all of these projects are going on hold, what would you do if you were going to obtain the two adjacent lots with a temporary lease.’” Envelope developed their proposal, and received a positive response – and competitive short-term lease.

The challenges: One central challenge was that Proxy’s nature as a changing project with a contingent lifespan (and unconventional building materials: shipping containers) meant it existed in a code vacuum: “According to the Building Department, ‘temporary’ is 90 days, so any temporary structure or event in the City’s eyes is 90 days or less. Everything else is meant for brick and mortar buildings.” However, Envelope worked with the City to find compromises and alternatives: meeting seismic standards, but creating unconditioned spaces. “Everyone has been extremely supportive, and because we’ve had such support from the City it’s helped us navigate uncharted waters.” In particular, the Mayor’s office helped streamline the permitting process for the project.

The outcome: The project has been very well-received so far, both by the immediate neighborhood and San Francisco at large. Wallack notes that, “In the neighborhood people really understand what it’s doing to what used to be a parking lot – how this starts to activate areas that used to be vacant.” It also attracts many potential tenants: “We get a ton of inquiries. Multiple inquiries a day, people that are interested in being a part of the project. We’re really curating the site and we’re not interested in having redundant program.”

The bigger picture: “We’re looking at this project as a content machine. How do you infuse dormant sites with program to activate certain areas in a city? How can we start to think about different models for development, not just using a traditional brick and mortar building model?…If we were to do a Proxy where you are, it would most likely be a very different thing, but the core values of the project would be the same: we would be looking to activate a dormant area.”