Neighbors with flair take on fresh luster, whatever their architectural genre might be. The claptrap nearby seems to shrink, left more hollow and thin than before.
Best of all, really good buildings nudge us to remember that cities are never done. A neighborhood that keeps evolving can end up better as a result.
That's why Stanley Saitowitz's relatively small building at 1234 Howard St. in San Francisco is such a big deal. It's a startling addition to the city's South of Market landscape, yet it feels right at home. It understands its place - and what that place can become.
The newcomer is a block west of the much-ballyhooed Federal Building, and in some ways the two could be cousins. Each cloaks its southern facade in metal screens that shield floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Each has a monochromatic tone, shades of silver and gray. Neither building wears even a hint of ornamentation.
But where the Federal Building is 18 stories of virile drama, with slashing lines and skyline moves that demand attention, 1234 Howard St. slides into the middle of the block as suave as can be.
The five-story building contains 18 condominiums set atop a 50-foot-wide ground floor devoted to parking and a narrow lobby. On one side there's a three-story wooden apartment building from the 1920s with a bare-bones look and two projecting bays; next door, a two-story commercial building lacks any style at all.
In other words, it's a block like a dozen others in the South of Market district: nondescript. The eye-catcher until now was a ghastly loft complex where two stories of brick are topped by 20 feet of black concrete, with the original brick windows jack-hammered to open them wider.
Saitowitz's response? An elegance that would be aloof if it wasn't mesmerizing.
Instead of topping the ground floor with a solid chunk of residential space, he tucks the condos into two long bars - four stories high and 17 feet wide - that parallel each other and run from Howard Street in front to Natoma Street in back. They're separated by a void, open except for glassed-in passages between the bays.
From above, the building is shaped like an H. From the street, it's an elevated alley sliced into the urban fabric - one made all the more intriguing since the walls along the void are stark, clear glass.
The walls facing the sidewalk are the same glass, but they're often hard to see. That's because of the building's most surprising feature: horizontal aluminum blinds that form a metallic drape stretching from the podium to the rooftop.
This sounds rude, especially since the ground floor itself is cloaked in a perforated aluminum screen.
Saitowitz has been working in the neighborhood for more than a decade, mostly at a much smaller scale, and he knows exactly how to make the most of the semi-industrial terrain with its fast-moving traffic and overscaled blocks. The form is simple as can be, rectangles and right angles. What snaps it to life are the materials and how they're used.
The blinds are a clean aluminum that glows in the sun; the glass has large panes and little reflection. The structural walls facing the street and the interior "bay" are clad in ribbed aluminum that is similar to corrugated steel, except it looks 10 times sharper than the SoMa norm. Even the perforated aluminum along the sidewalk, dense from afar, is polished and porous up-close.
So 1234 Howard drapes layer upon silvery layer, a close weave of complementary textures and shades.
"It's all a matter of where you put your resources," Saitowitz says. "If you make a few big moves and keep them under control, that gives you the (budgetary) liberty to select high-quality materials."
The obvious criticism of the building is its closed-off nature at the street; you wouldn't want entire blocks where the sidewalks are lined with metal screens. And Saitowitz knows this - a project of his slated for now-chic Octavia Boulevard includes a large cafe - but he also realized that with a slot on the block just 50 feet wide, it was better to put every inch to effective use than to try to shoehorn in a tiny retail space that nobody would ever lease.
"If we'd had another 10 feet, we'd definitely have made room for street activity," he says. "At this level it's totally about the city, the texture and the scale."
Because it's about the city, 1234 Howard makes you look at the city around it more closely. And here's a surprise: Even a block like this has treasures. Two doors down, a stained-glass dealer has turned its second-floor facade into a multi-hued billboard. Across the way toward Eighth Street, an otherwise drab showroom wall has sharp wooden accents.
They're little stabs at life, and now they've been reinforced.
At the Federal Building, architect Thom Mayne unleashed a self-contained tour de force. And that's fine for what it is. But with 1234 Howard, Saitowitz sized up the surroundings and then slipped in a work of art - one that makes you wonder why everything around it can't show the same amount of care.