Envelope A+D’s Proxy in SF: A New Model For Flexible Urban Deveolopment?



When the planned development of a large housing and retail project in the heart of San Francisco ground to a halt along with the economy, it seemed that the neighborhood would be forever stuck with the fenced-in, gravel-covered lots lining the newly refurbished Octavia Boulevard. But architect Douglas Burnham and his staff at Envelope A+D—the designers of one of the structures that had been put on hold—decided that if they couldn’t reshape the economy, maybe they could reshape the building process. For the in-limbo lots, Envelope A+D designed Proxy, a temporary structure of reskinned shipping containers—their solid metal walls replaced with expansive sheets of glass—that could go up (and be taken down) quickly and inexpensively. Proxy features a rotating roster of vendors, from coffee bars to retail stores to an open-air movie theater. “This type of urgent, relevant programming, it happens all the time in our daily lives but not in our urban planning,” says Burnham, who was inspired by instantly accessible technologies such as smart phones and social media. “This thing will be like a content machine.” What happens when the economy gets revving again? It can all be disassembled and cleared out to make way for the original plans. Installation for Proxy started in early November, and by mid-month vendors, including Ritual Roasters, Smitten Ice Cream and Suppenküche (which has a four-year lease for an outdoor beer garden), were already moving in. “We’re hoping that it can be a new model for flexible urban developments,” says Burnham. “But for us, it’s been more like a crazy experiment.”

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