San Francisco on Steroid


When I was living in San Fran, I could really feel I was living in a city of hills and valleys. I was quite amazed that people decided to build a city on these hills. The longer I thought about that, I started to realise that I grew up in the North District in Hong Kong which is an area of hills too. But somehow I never really noticed the hills, why is that?

Well, in San Fran, I actually “see” the hills every day, but in Hong Kong, the hills are blocked by the super tall buildings. These buildings form layers of walls and totally block the view to the hills. You can totally understand that what I mean from the photo above taken from my window. I live on the 18th floor already and still I don’t see much of the hills! I guess there should be a height limit set for the buildings and the buildings should be placed on a grid so people can have a view when they look in between the buildings.

sheung shui, hong kong – jun 30, 2013


Sunset at Ocean Beach in San Fran – A City Defined by Its Stunning Outdoor Spaces

view to pacific ocean

Before the first time I moved to San Francisco, my friend told me: “Kam, things especially housing are very expensive there. But the weather is really nice and you get to do a lot of free outdoor stuff there. They have great outdoor space in San Fran.” Well, the old me paid way much more attention to buildings than outdoor space. To me, cities were defined by their buildings in the downtown – NYC and Empire State Building; Chicago and Sears Tower; Seattle and Space Needle. And of course, San Francisco was defined by the downtown’s skyline featuring the Transamerica Pyramid.

The more time I spend in SF, the more I feel that the city is all about its open spaces – the hills, the parks and the oceans. Downtown does not really pay a big part in the locals’ life at all. In everyday conservation, people like to tell you what they have done in the parks over the weekends and what nice walk or hike they have taken. I slowly have become one of them too. Taking the dog to the Buena Vista Park which is indeed a hill and chilling out at Dolores Park have become a daily ritual to me. In the city of seven hills, it is amazing how many different vistas you get from up and down the hills.

Indeed every city has outdoor space, but not many of them are able to preserve the rustic quality of these spaces. Take Ocean Beach as an example, there is no McDonald’s, giant parking lots, tourists’ center, surf shops, hotels or any other commercial components. A beach is pretty much what you get there. The natural beauty of the beach simply touches your heart and makes you come back for more. That is what makes most San Francisco’s outdoor spaces so successful

view to land’s end, with people watching sunset

view to pacific ocean, with people chilling out



final sunset

ocean beach, san francisco – 5:35pm, jan 25, 2013

The Mysterious Twin Gymnasiums by Golden Gate Park


looking west at the two gymnasiums on federick st. with kezar stadium on the right

When you walk down Frederick St. by the Kezar Stadium near the Golden Gate Park, you will see a row of Victorian houses and in between them there are two enormous masonry buildings topped with an arch. These two almost identical art deco-styled buildings that seem so un-related to the current streetscape are indeed the remains of the former San Francisco Polytechnic High School. The narrower one on the east was the Girls’ Gymnasium and the one of the west was the Boys’ Gymnasium. When the city tore down the school to build residential housing, the neighborhood managed to rescue the two gyms which have become the current homes for the Circus Center and the ArcoSports Center.

I really admire the effort put into saving the gyms by the people of San Francisco. Most of time whether these buildings would be saved has nothing to do with the physical context such as the buildings themselves or the design of the new projects. The buildings are only saved when the people who care about them do something about it. And of course, the concerned authority would only have respond to its voters’ want in a democratic society. If it were in mainland China or even in Hong Kong, protests would mean nothing to the government and every bit of the old buildings and infrastructure including streets and landscape would be demolished in no time.

Keeping these old monuments have contributed positively to the diversity of built environment of San Francisco. The grand scale of these monuments, the engravings on buildings and the lavish ornaments simply cannot be done in the modern day budget-oriented buildings. These artifacts of the past really make the city more charming, rich in history and memory. And they give you something to discover during each walk or ride. Isn’t that what we like about taking walks in San Francisco?


looking eastat the two gymnasiums with buena vista park at the end of federick st.


new housing development in between the two gymnasiums


current look of the west gymnasium (home of the circus center)


circus center trains student to perform circus arts


the lavishly ornate entrance to the circus center


the large practice hall inside the circus center


classes and events at the circuit center


wall painting at the circus center


the relationship of the two gymnasiums to the kezar stadium, too bad the trees have over grownn to block the view of the west gymnasium

federick st. by kezar stadium, san francisco – 11:30am, feb 5, 2013

Castro Theatre – Where the Big Show is Always Happening on the Outside


Any person who has seen the Castro neighborhood knows about the Castro Theatre. It is probably not because they have been to a show or a movie inside. But they have seen what happened on the outside – the numerous civil right protests, gay parades, street fairs, celebrations and memorials. The façade of the Castro Theatre building has always been a backdrop for the important events and dramas happening in Castro. In a way, it is like the city hall of Castro. Things just seem to matter more if they are photographed happening in front of the theatre. And of course, the theatre was featured in the movie Milk many times. I wonder if the architect Timothy Pflueger had foreseen the significance of the theatre when he was drawing the magical art deco façade.


celebration for obama’s winning in re-election – nov 6, 2012

castro street fair – oct 7, 2012

castro street on a regular day

castro street on a regular night

429 castro street, san francisco

Burger Meister’s “Palm Tree-ed” Overhang in Cole Valley


There are many outdoor dining areas that have incorporated great landscape design in Cole Valley. However it was my first time seeing one that has punched holes in their overhang for decorating trees to go through. I am not sure how the dining area is actually benefited from the palm trees since you can’t really feel the presence of the trees’ canopy when you are sitting under the overhang. But having the pair of almost identical palm trees in the front definitely makes Burger Meister look like a fun place to eat.


86 carl st., san francisco – 2:11pm, feb 1, 2013

Big Building Swallowing Small Building in One Piece


I have seen many new buildings that have kind of incorporated existing buildings into their designs. But they usually just keep parts of an existing building for example a dome, a façade, a ceiling or a lobby. Or they may keep the physical structure of the old building but totally gut out the existing social life.

There is rarely a case that a complete old building is being preserved in a new building like the one in the photo. I guess the social life or the use of the shop could have changed too but in no way it was forced to give up its own separate identity, or forced to socially and economically integrate with the skyscraper. No comment here for other design aspects of this semi-postmodernist skyscraper. However the effort to keep the original shop has really made the building project more interesting.




619 market st., san Francisco – 12:18pm, jan 26, 2013

Caselli Mansion in Castro – A Different Kind of Apartment Building


Built in 1892, the legendary Caselli Mansion was the Mac-Mansion of its time. Its enormous size and height simply dwarfed all the buildings on the nearby blocks. Attracted by this architectural wonder, I decided to check out the mansion today.

Caselli Mansion sits at the corner on the bottom of a sloped hill. To approach it, you have to first walk up the steps at the corner to the base of the building foundation. And then a flight of step would bring you up to the colonnaded porch which offers an amazing vista of the downtown. Inside the entrance lobby, there is grand staircase that takes you to the first upper floor. To go up to the attic or the lower level, you have to take the servant staircase in the back. Although the original open space on the main floors have been partitioned and divided into different apartments, the former glory of the mansion can still be felt in the detailing and craftsmanship of the wood panels, door moulding, ceiling plaster work and giant double hung windows.

On the outside, Caselli Mansion has a fairly symmetrical façade with a pair of turreted towers and tall chimneys. The attic is formed by a steep hip roof topped by a decorative tower in the center and a projecting pitched roof in the front. A third larger round tower in the back soars further into the sky than the two towers in the front.

Because of the building complexity, a variety of spaces were created when Caselli Mansion was divided into apartments. Some rooms have a flat ceiling and a rectangular layout; some rooms in the tower would have a circular floor plan; rooms on top of the tower have a coned ceiling and almost 270 degree view of the city; rooms on the upper attic have their own private staircases leading up from the top floor; I was told by a resident that a couple room in the tower even their own mezzanine. I find it very intriguing that how different types of spatial experience were created when they retrofitted the mansion into an apartment building. This collection of interesting and weird spaces would not be made possible if the mansion was planned as an apartment building from the beginning.

around 1892, photo copyright of


entry steps leading to the platform of the mansion

steps leading to the colonnaded porch

view of the colonnaded porch from below

view from the colonnaded porch, including the top of the transamerica pyramid

detail of the front door on porch

detail at doorway corner

detail of balustrade and post

detail od mouldings

grand staircase

wood panel at grand staircase

tiled painting of the original mansion

hallway at third floor (above main and second floors)

hallway at lower floor

caselli mansion was at one time the california general hospital

view of mansion from across caselli st.

view from afar on caselli st.

the enormous size of caselli mansion can be seen from up the hill, click to zoom in!

zooming into the previous photo

another view of the mansion from afar

250 douglass st., san francisco – 2:09pm, jan 30, 2013