From a young age, Stanley Saitowitz was interested in how things were built and they way they’re designed. Growing up in Johannesburg, he would marvel at construction sites, fascinated at the brick, cement and other materials that would eventually become someone’s home.
His passion for building and design led to a lucrative and laudable career in architecture. After earning degrees from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of California, Berkeley, Saitowitz made his home in San Francisco and began developing an impressive portfolio, designing everything from condominiums to synagogues. One of his many career highlights includes the design of the remarkable New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston for which he received many awards and accolades.
Today, Saitowitz hasn’t stopped learning and still considers himself a lifelong student — even as a Professor Emeritus at his alma mater in Berkeley. He draws inspiration from the things that surround him in his daily life: cooking, clothing, cars and travel all contribute to his creative vision.
We sat down with Saitowitz to pick his brain on the San Francisco architecture scene, cutting-edge design and his impressive career trajectory.
BuzzBuzzHome: What originally inspired you to pursue a career in architecture?
Stanley Saitowitz: I grew up in a new post-war suburb in the north of Johannesburg in a spec house my parents bought just before I was born. There was still a lot of construction going on in the neighborhood, and I would watch new houses start with the dirt getting dug up, and then gradually see them emerge from the ground. I used to sit on my bike and look at the bricklayers building walls brick by brick until things behind vanished. I loved the smell of construction, of earth and cement, and often sneaked into the sites after the workers left to explore the progress, and walk through the unfinished rooms imagining how they would be.
I think the first time I knew about architecture was when I was nine years old. I was at Emmarentia Primary School in Johannesburg, and we went on a class field trip by bus to the Kruger National Game Park for a week. The father of one of the girls in the class accompanied us. He was really cool, with a sharp SLR camera and trim beard, and knew the names of all the animals, Felix Fells. He was an architect, and this was the first time I heard of this. He became a hero figure, and I found out soon after that he had designed the big house on the next corner near where we lived. I became friends with his daughter Pam so that I could get invited to their house, and loved going there. It was sleek and simple, with open flowing rooms and huge sliding glass doors that led out into the garden.
BBH: Why did you decide to move to California from Johannesburg to begin your career in architecture?
SS: I actually began working in Johannesburg. While at school I did some remodels for neighbors and relatives, and in final year built the Catherine House, which was part of my thesis at Wits. My second building, done soon after graduating, the Transvaal House, was listed as a historic building by the Monuments Commission in South Africa in 1997. Going to graduate school in America was a local tradition, especially to the University of Pennsylvania, but without Kahn, Philadelphia seemed unappealing, so I decided on California, mainly because of sunshine, and ended up at Berkeley. All my images, mostly from movies and music, turned out to be of Southern California, and I was quite disappointed at first that I could not surf before class.
Anyway, I really only intended to be away for a year. But there was something else about the Bay Area, and that was the afterglow of the Free Speech movement and the 60’s, and the sense of being in an incubator of radical social change, all of which was elating. During that year at school, although I continued to be horribly homesick, Soweto erupted, and I began to develop an addiction for America and the kind of urban life San Francisco offered. A few faculty at Berkeley were very hospitable, and by the time I graduated, I was teaching, and soon after joined the ladder faculty, and then got tenure. All this made it hard to think about going back to South Africa until after Nelson Mandela was freed, but by then I was already quite settled in San Francisco, and had started working here.
BBH: How did your time at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of California, Berkeley shape your career? What would you say was the most important stage of your education?
SS: I never really left architecture school until recently when I became Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley. After being a student at Wits University I taught and began practice, and then the same thing happened when I came to Berkeley, so I really have been a student and at school my whole life.
My formative education was definitely in South Africa, and I am always amazed at how much of what still interests me now was defined then. My undergraduate thesis was on indeterminacy — I was interested in buildings that would help set people free — buildings as tools for the occupants to transform, as instruments of liberation rather than static objects. This remains the core of my search. The means of realization of this idea has changed, and my work now is more abstract and formless, but the problem and the goal was defined in my 20s.
“I used to be more involved with ambiguity, but since the memorial I started to focus on how ephemeral certainty can be, and I now look for clarity and resolve as a way to construct the reference for freedom.”
BBH: How did you establish yourself in the San Francisco architecture scene? Was there a key moment or project you worked on during your formative years that helped you take your career to the next level?
SS: My work in South Africa had focused on detached houses on rural sites in the countryside, buildings as topography. I called them Geological Architecture and was interested in creating habitable landscapes, ambiguous and free formalized terrain, rather than fixed and programmed buildings. The first work here were also houses in the rolling hills of California, and they really built on my beginnings in the Transvaal. The important shift for me was later with my own building at 1022 Natoma Street in San Francisco, my first urban building, which became the prototype for all our work in cities. I think of the city as a form of geography too, almost a work of nature, and the buildings we build in cities respond and connect to their sites in the same way I used to think about building in the landscape, but as part of urban geography.
BBH: You won several awards for your work on the New England Holocaust Memorial including a Harleston Parker Award in 1997. How did it feel to design something of such significance?
SS: The Holocaust Memorial was an open competition that I won and has had a big influence on my thinking. It is a project which is now almost twenty years old, and I continue to be reminded of its impact by emails from people who have powerful experiences there and contact me. Somehow in thinking of the memorial and the overwhelming immensity of the Holocaust, I found a very simple, singular and abstract object which could act as the receptacle for all the meanings and interpretations, and allow people to attach their own meanings to it. The six 6’X6’ 60’ tall towers with six million numbers etched and six pits named for the six Nazi Death Camps in German-occupied Poland are an abstract ledger. I used to be more involved with ambiguity, but since the memorial I started to focus on how ephemeral certainty can be, and I now look for clarity and resolve as a way to construct the reference for freedom. I think it is easiest to see the difference by looking at the current houses which are so much less about form, compared to the earlier work.
The shift from matter to space has led to a focus on the blank, the empty, which allows the most room. I have started to think of an idea of an ‘Expanded Architecture’ based on exclusions and absences which takes precedent over positivity, a world of constructed openness. I have also become interested in removing reference, in the essential and sublime, without image or allusion. The material, the geometry, and the systems of agglomeration become from, and in their immediate reality they transcend their object hood.
BBH: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? Who influenced you when you were developing your personal style of art and architecture?
SS: There was a very strong Modern Architecture culture which had developed between the wars in Johannesburg, and there were great examples of International Style White Architecture all over the city. Many of those architects were my teachers. But by the time I went to school, another focus had arisen as a critique of the International Style — Regionalism — and the most prolific practitioner was an amazing architect/magician in Mozambique, Pancho Guedes, who had developed a truly African Modernism. Pancho is my most important mentor and role model. I am also completely indebted to all the masters, especially Le Corbusier, Mies, and Kahn. I was deeply influenced by Alison and Peter Smithson.
I am also very interested in food and think of architecture more like cooking than art, where the ingredients are key, and the recipe the design. I am interested in clothing, cars, computers, in all the evolving cultural phenomena. I would like to make buildings that are as radical as the shift from the internal combustion engine with its thousands of parts, to the simplicity of the electric motor; as discreet as electronics from mechanics. I try to be inspired by everything, every day. Travel is now my school, and I learn a huge amount by seeing new worlds I visit whenever I can.
BBH: Tell us about some of your recent residential work in San Francisco. What is the story behind the design for 259 Clara?
SS: There is something unique and absolutely special about San Francisco — older buildings established this through a shared perspective; the sense of the light, the soft texture of the hills we inhabit, the way things nestle around the bay and vanish in the fog. There is a delicate almost feminine quality to the grain of San Francisco, like some encrusted map draped over the geography. Buildings are mostly Ionic and Corinthian, fluted and swirly, light and reflective. I love old photographs of the city where everything seems unified and white. I am of course totally uninterested in replicating these old buildings in fake antiques that would entirely undermine the value of the originals. But every building we work on tries to express this character in relation to its particular and unique context. People carry around a frozen image of San Francisco as all Victorian, but what I love about the city is how different each neighborhood is. And each building we do is an expression of its place.
So Blanc at 1080 Sutter Street is a contemporary version of the white neighboring wedding cake buildings — a type one finds all over the hills North of Market. 8 Octavia is a New Victorian — bigger in scale, different in material and function, but still with the delicate filigree that is so San Francisco. Same with the infill buildings in SOMA which merge the Victorian and industrial that characterize that part of the city. 259 Clara is an alley building. I have always loved the SOMA alleys which are more direct, honest and jumbled, without the aesthetic ambitions of big street buildings. They are more like backs of things. You seldom find polite bay windows or elaborate ornament, but rather flat walls, modest materials, and simple and random punched windows, like 259 Clara. Being on the north side of the street, it folds to let sunlight into the alley.
BBH: You worked on designing the much larger scale Jasper in Rincon Hill. Do you believe San Francisco needs to ramp up in terms of high-rise development?
SS: I was only involved with the interior at Jasper. I think our skyline of new high-rises are so totally generic and add nothing to the character of the city. By contrast, we actually have really beautiful examples of tall buildings, built in the 30s and 40s — delicate white wedding cake structures that have the crenelated facades which make San Francisco unique, and respond to the beautiful Mediterranean light here. You can see examples of these all over the city. If we built on these buildings instead of global starchitecture blog images, we could grow and densify the city with tall buildings without destroying its character.
I am equally dismayed by the multi-material wrapped, ticky tack low rise housing popping up everywhere — just look at Mission Bay or Upper Market or the Van Ness corridor. Everywhere you see collages of junkfood-like materials that contribute nothing to the wholesome and beautiful quality of San Francisco. The great thing about the current boom is how all over the city older buildings are getting renewed and tended, and how everywhere is being intensified and enhanced, and I wish the new buildings could be better grandchildren to their ancestors.