At the time of its completion in 1983, the San Francisco Ballet Association Building, as noted by Architecture magazine’s managing editor, Allen Freeman, was “without precedent in our country.” The New York Times identified it as “the first building in the United States to be designed and constructed exclusively for the use of a major ballet institution.” The building, designed by Beverly Willis and located within San Francisco’s Civic Center district, would go on to serve as “a model for the design of future American ballet companies and schools.” The building’s design and facilities were so remarkable and ground-breaking that, as one journalist observed, “Dance people don’t merely visit the San Francisco Ballet building: They make pilgrimages to it.”
A cultural fixture and source of pride for the city, the San Francisco Ballet Company was founded in 1933 as the first professional ballet company in the United States and, in 1942, separated from the San Francisco Opera to become its own independent company. The San Francisco Ballet routinely took as its practice studios second-hand locations that could be rented cheaply. The company was formerly housed in a renovated parking garage on 18th Avenue, where the downstairs studios had ceilings so low that the dancers could not practice lifts for fear of hitting the beams. On the East Coast, ballet companies such as the American Ballet Theater owned floors in tall buildings that housed a number of different performing arts groups. The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York, which opened in 1966, provided space on its lower level, below the stage, exclusively for the use of multiple touring companies. Similarly, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, completed in 1971, provided facilities for touring companies solely on its top floor. In 1983, the San Francisco Ballet Association became “the first American ballet company and school to break this pattern by constructing new quarters for itself.”
The ballet company asked Willis and Associates, Inc. (Willis) to analyze several existing buildings it was thinking about purchasing and renovating. All would have required substantial, costly structural renovation. The decision was made to search for a new building site. One was located at 455 Franklin Street, across from the San Francisco Opera House in the city’s Civic and Performing Arts Center and adjacent to an existing parking garage. A gasoline company, the other by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, owned part of the site. With the active help of Diane Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, the site was purchased.
The final building design included facilities to support all of the activities of the company and school with the exception of set storage. The eight rehearsal and classroom studios average 56 by 40 feet in size with 15-foot-high ceilings to accommodate lifts. Additionally, the design provides administrative offices, a library with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, and multi-purpose rooms for academic and choreographic study and for hosting conferences. Students and company members enjoy physical therapy and workout rooms with gymnastic equipment, locker rooms with showers, separate lounges, and a computer room. The public is also invited in, to the ballet shop and a ground-floor studio used for community outreach programs.
Due to the split ownership of the building’s site, the design had to be constructed in accordance with input from both the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the San Francisco City Planning Department. The planning department developed design criteria for the building that specified an overall height of 96 feet, as well as the height of the cornice line and the color and finishes of exterior materials: all to ensure that the design would share the neo-Renaissance style of the Civic Center.
The planned location for the building—facing Franklin Street—was on an elongated rectangular site only one-sixth the size of the adjacent performing arts structures. To contextualize with its surroundings, the ballet building would need to appear massive. This represented a challenge, made more difficult by the fact that the planning department also required a car passage through the building to facilitate the drop-off and pick-up of the schools’ students.
To accomplish this, Willis incorporated elements of the Civic Center’s rectangular geometry and neo-Renaissance vocabulary: the horizontal, tripartite divisions of its base, middle, and top align with those of the adjacent opera house. The building is clad in a concrete material similar in color and texture to the other contemporary area structures. The exterior walls are thickened so that the windows, set deep within the walls, cast strong shadows similar to those of Renaissance buildings.
Seeking to convey the image of ballet, however, Willis took a modernist approach to the design of these elements. During design development, she and associate partner Charles Rueger, who served as project manager, undertook an unprecedented amount of research into the function of a ballet building. They conducted numerous interviews with dancers to understand their needs and record their experiences. The pair also visited facilities maintained by other ballet companies, within the United States and also in Europe: the Juilliard School in New York City, the Royal Ballet in England, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. They retained architect Terry Beaubois to direct the construction drawings. As a result of the team’s analysis, Willis introduced a number of innovations. For example, she designed a detail that tilted the tall mirrors on the walls so that they provide unbroken reflections of the dancers during lifts and jumps. She also incorporated a footbath and a medical facility into the building’s program.
Breaking with the classical tradition of symmetry, the proscenium-style main entrance to the ballet building was located on the corner of the site. Placing the two-story, monumental doorway at the corner accomplished several objectives: it connected the building to an axis of the Civic Center’s master-plan and to the Rose Garden; it gave the building a distinctive identity within the performing arts complex; it allowed the building to be seen from the entrance of the Opera House; and it avoided orienting the main entrance toward the Opera House’s blank rear wall.
Recessed within the two-story Franklin Street entrance, the curvilinear glass wall with its rippling reflections suggests physical movement, as does the swelling curves of its balconies. In the facade, modern and neo-Renaissance styles intertwine, each a part of the other in an endless choreography of point and counterpoint, movement and rest.
The San Francisco Ballet Building has served as a functional prototype—the “mother” building—or new ballet schools nationwide.