Why sinking SF tower is now a top tourist destination
The San Francisco Chronicle
15 September 2018
The cracked window glass in San Francisco’s Millennium Tower.
Photo: San Francisco Department of Building Inspection
Ever since news of its precarious tilt became public in 2016, San
Francisco’s Millennium Tower has mortified its owners and entertained
just about everyone else.
Add such twists as last week’s oddly cracked window on the 36th floor,
caused by who knows what, and the saga shows no signs of ending anytime
soon. It also shows, I hate to admit, that architecture can be
irrelevant in terms of a building’s renown.
For instance: When people now visit from out of town, our sinking glass
shaft is the 21st century sight they want to see. Museums by name-brand
architects are a badge of civic pride, but let’s get real: Millennium
Tower is more fun to ponder over drinks.
This isn’t a criticism of the 645-foot high-rise at Mission and Fremont
streets, which opened in 2009. I also don’t want to minimize the strain
on the owners of the 419 condominiums: It can’t be fun to know your
58-story home has sunk about 18 inches and tilted 14 inches to the west.
But in weird yet undeniable ways, Millennium Tower has come to
symbolize the hubris and fragility of today’s San Francisco — and how
buildings only capture the public’s imagination when they tap a nerve
that goes beyond aesthetics.
In this case, obviously, there’s the “what were they thinking” when
they erected a massive tower of heavy concrete without locking it to
the bedrock. In earthquake-vulnerable San Francisco. On landfill, no
And who are the people at risk? Residents wealthy enough to desire and
afford an address that billed itself in its original marketing as “a
shimmering reflection of the city that inspired it ... we’ve elevated
living well to an art form.” Even now, a two-bedroom on the 34th floor
is listed at $2.2 million.
If this were an office building, the schadenfreude wouldn’t be nearly so ... rich.
Nor would there be the same local buzz if the crystalline high-rise
were lost within a thicket of sky-nuzzling slabs or off the beaten
Think again. This is the epicenter of the “new” San Francisco, for
better or worse, defined by tech behemoths and a globalized sheen.
Towers adorned with Salesforce logos frame the intersection’s other
three corners. The plaza for Salesforce Tower allows a full frontal
view of Millennium Tower, bottom to top.
Two new towers leased to Facebook loom to the south and east. Closer
still is the city’s new transit center with its rooftop park — an ideal
vantage point for strollers to stop, point, and try to discern whether
or not they can glean the lean.
Yes, these all are caricatures to some extent. Several other nearby
towers of recent vintage don’t go down to bedrock, either. The
difference? They were engineered correctly.
What counts is that the caricatures feel right. Details aside, they resonate.
This is important, because resonance is the sensation that make certain buildings seem larger than life.
In the Bay Area, it’s why the Ferry Building has a prominence far
beyond its actual dimensions. The 245-foot campanile flanked by
classical arches evokes the ceremonial air of a proud peninsular city
at the dawn of the 20th century, welcoming the world with an assurance
that outsiders would want to find their way here.
The Transamerica Pyramid strikes a similar chord — a steep concrete
triangle that’s not great architecture but is instantly recognizable.
Something you’ll find nowhere else, as idiosyncratic as the
neighborhoods around it. No wonder people hated the idea. No wonder
it’s now a fixture of postcards and local lore.
Millennium Tower isn’t nearly as memorable visually, to be sure. The
diagonal shot of aluminum fins across milky blue glass gives a kinetic
charge to Handel Architects’ sculpted high-rise. Otherwise, it would
blur into all the other glass towers that have popped up in the past
But the man-bites-dog notoriety knows no boundaries: What began as a
development project becomes a metaphorical comeuppance for the 1
percent. That’s why there was a much-publicized feature last fall on
“60 Minutes,” and feature articles in publications, including the
Toronto Star, England’s Daily Mail, Forbes and the South China Morning
Here’s an example drawn from personal experience.
Last year I was on the East Coast and had a glass of wine with the dean
of a prominent school of architecture. The dean asked me about just one
San Francisco building. Guess which one.
With time, presumably, Millennium Tower’s prolonged moment in the
spotlight will pass. The cracked window will be replaced. The tower
will be straightened or stabilized. A small army of contractors and
attorneys will find new sources of lucrative fees.
Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa once again will be in a class by itself.
In the lavish marketing brochure from 2009, the developers made this promise: “Millennium Tower is destined to become an icon.”
They were right — but not in the way that anyone back then could have predicted.
John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic.