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Mark Cavagnero, FAIA: Growing Big Ideas

Patience and deep community involvement are how architects make sure clients’ questions, concerns, and anxieties eventually turn into architecture

By Sara Fernández Cendón

By virtue of its size and relative permanence, the art and science of architecture speaks with a loud voice. Its scale and participatory nature make it a difficult creative medium to ignore. In 28 years of architectural practice, Mark Cavagnero, FAIA, has come to realize that his job is to give words and meaning to this voice that communicate ideas about clients, organizations, and communities. So when a client approaches him wanting to build a concert hall, Cavagnero tries not to get bogged down in the number of seats and the size of the bar. Instead, his first question to the client is, “What will this concert hall say about your art form?”

At the helm of San Francisco–based Mark Cavagnero Associates, Cavagnero works mainly with public nonprofits and what he refers to as other “nonprofit-like” institutions. In addition to government clients at the city, state, and federal level, his firm works with cultural and educational institutions such as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Oakland Museum of California, and the California Film Institute. Not surprisingly, when asked to distill key lessons from his years of practice, his thoughts immediately drift to concept and vision. Cavagnero has learned that it takes patience, active involvement, leadership, and a broad, generous understanding of function to execute a big idea, whether for a nationally recognized museum or a small community pool, as he explains below.

LESSON ONE: Patience to be the Memory of the Project

Oakland Museum of California

“The first thing is patience. Projects in the public sector take time. A long time. Years. A good example is the Oakland Museum of California. We started on that in 1999, with master planning and some modest renovations. Then the project went through a long fundraising period followed by two years of landmarks review, because the building is the most famous landmark in town. The board came and went, a lot of the staff changed in those 11 years, and it became our job to keep the vision and to articulate it consistently in year one, in year five, in year 10, so everyone could still rally around it.

On these kinds of projects we get really involved with the fundraising, too, because we become the voice that consistently conveys enthusiasm. We become the ones who remember why we started it all, and why it’s important. We become the voice of the project—its face, its memory. The client is looking for us to intelligently lead that vision through the morass of public review, entitlement, permitting, and to keep the board together, and to not lose a sense of the vision. This is very tricky because there are all kinds of forces wanting to compromise that vision for various reasons.

This is totally unlike commercial projects, where typically the client has the money, they want their permit next week, and they’re squeezing the contractor about how quickly they can get their building, and about how quickly they can generate revenue.”

LESSON TWO: Enlist the Community as Your Design Partner

Sava Pool and the Santa Cruz Community Foundation

“The Sava Pool, a public natatorium in the West Portal neighborhood in San Francisco, involved extensive advocacy work with the community to make the project actually work for the neighborhood. We ultimately were able to design a highly sustainable building from the initial concept down to the last bit. And along the way, working closely with the community allowed us to talk to them about designing contemporary architecture, because by and large people’s first sensibility is to want a building that is more like buildings they’ve seen and are comfortable with. So you’re trying to lead them to an understanding that a contemporary building with a sustainable design—based [on] its siting, its orientation, its materials, its energy use—can propel the neighborhood and the community forward. It raises the standards for subsequent work, it makes everyone more informed, it’s a more thoughtful building.

Most were unsure of the contemporary architecture, but many simply developed trust in me as an individual. When the project opened, a number of the neighbors approached me at the opening and told me how beautiful they thought the building was, and also how worried they had been during the process, but never expressed their concerns because the process of getting there seemed so rational, and our work seemed so thorough and focused on the major public concerns. There was never a single time when I pronounced our intention of designing a contemporary form, only a methodical progression to a site and environmentally sensitive design.

As an architect in the public forum, you’re trying to convince people who have been in the neighborhood [for] 20, 30, 40 years that you’re listening to everything they’re saying, you’re taking it in earnestly and completely, but you’re going to come back with that information filtered through your own architectural point of view. It’s going to look terribly different from what their predisposition is, because you’re going to make it work [through] a whole variety of criteria, not just the one or two they’re worried about.”

LESSON THREE: Digging Past Program, Understanding the Larger Function


“Clients always come to us with their programmatic concerns. In the case of the SFJAZZ Center, currently in construction, the program includes a 700-seat concert hall, a black-box theatre, a restaurant/café, and an educational component. They’re right on the edge of an emerging hip neighborhood called Hayes Valley, and they want to simultaneously be a local destination, a neighborhood place, and an international destination.

They had really detailed criteria about how the music hall had to work, and how the acoustics had to work. But the larger issue was, ‘What kind of message, what kind of values, what kind of iconography do they really want the building to project? And what does the community want to see from your institution?’

Most of the cultural groups I work with are worried about audience development. They worry that the younger generation now listens to music through their iPods, and experiences visual things through YouTube and Facebook, but they’re not going to the theatre or museums as much, they’re not going to hear live music as much. Everyone is worried that the patrons aren’t the 25- to 30-year-olds. They’re still the 40- to 50-year-olds, or older.

SFJAZZ wanted to make jazz seem accessible, make it seem relevant, seem like it’s part of the city, seem like it’s not just another sheltered little cocoon of a group with its art form behind closed doors. So what we talked about was a building that would be very transparent, very accessible—not just physically accessible, but also visually and emotionally accessible, so it would be easy to see yourself walking in—a building that dissolves onto the sidewalk and into the night. The iconography became really important to them, even though in the beginning they didn’t think of the building in those terms. They thought about square footage, the number of seats, the size of the bar, and number of classrooms. So I talked to them about the larger non-functional needs, which are all about message, and image, and communication.

That’s what architecture in the public realm has become to me. It’s trying to go after a higher ground than just meeting program, meeting budget, and meeting schedule. Today the public is really craving buildings that lead, educate, connect, and communicate. And that’s where architecture is most exciting. It’s more about ideas than brick and mortar. What’s its real vision? Work past the program. Dig down deeper. What do you really want this project to accomplish? How can it serve the client and the larger community?

Architecture is this incredibly complex voice, loud but unspoken. By loud, I mean you can’t miss it. It’s there. It’s literally larger than life. It’s so much larger than a human being. And you say to yourself, ‘This extremely loud presence, that speaks no words, makes no sound, what do you want it to communicate?’ And as an architect I find that fun, because it gets back to ideas, and ideas move the world forward.”


Cavagnero’s renovation of the Oakland Museum of California. Image courtesy of Tim Griffith.

Sava Pool in San Francisco. Image courtesy of Tim Griffith.

A rendering of the SFJAZZ Center. Image courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates.

A model of the SFJAZZ Center. Image courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates.

Mark Cavagnero, FAIA. Image courtesy of Matthew Millman.


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