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Solving the Rubik's Cube: San Francisco-based Mark Horton Architecture uses metal to make projects fit in the urban condition

08-2010 Temple Sinai 034bTo say that Mark Horton Architecture in San Francisco takes on an eclectic mix of projects might be a bit of an understatement. Its three most recent projects include a synagogue, a computer history museum and a high-end trampoline facility. MHA represents what might be a somewhat rare breed today-a general architecture firm. The firm, which has been around for 25 years and has a staff of six, can and will do almost anything.

"I think it provides a tremendous benefit to our clients, because we can cross-pollinate on a variety of different projects," said Principal Mark Horton.

The firm's work-which also includes single and multi-family residential, schools and interiors-tends to be very contemporary, modern and rational.

"It's based in a large degree on the materials we use, how they're put together, what they carry intrinsically in meaning, and how they're being used," Horton said. "I think materials carry meaning and that meaning needs to be injected into the design. It's a big part of how we put architecture together. I also tend to be very interested in architecture as three-dimensional object making."

Metal in the City

08-2010 Temple Sinai 037bOne material MHA is very comfortable using, particularly in urban settings, is metal. The trampoline facility was an old light-metal framed long-span airplane hangar that MHA detoxified-removing lead paint and asbestos-and turned into a soon-to-be LEED-certified historic building.

The Temple Sinai synagogue in Oakland, Calif.-done in collaboration with Michael Harris Architecture-features a sculptural chapel clad in standing-seam Green Tinted VM Zinc from Umicore Building Products. This cladding is on the walls as well as the roof, and the gesture is one of a continuous wrapped surface.

"The gesture of a continuously wrapped surface, the continuity of wall and roof cladding, were also a key element of the building's symbolic and functional quality," said Keith Dubinsky, the MHA architect on the project. "It represents the traditional prayer shawl (tallit), which is wrapped around one's head in order to edit one's field of vision and focus attention. The chapel cladding does this on the scale of the whole building for the congregants as a group."

Horton said metal is especially useful in the urban condition because it can be manipulated in a number of different forms, and still give a solid, permanent feel to a project.

"Some people might think of a metal building as a hard, solid, forever material," Horton said. "But it can weather and be weathered pretty quickly and easily."

08-2010 Temple Sinai 046bThe green zinc was used on the Temple Sinai project to give the resemblance of a patina copper, which was rejected by the municipality because of run-off concerns. Dubinksy said it was also interesting to see the traditional use of sheet metal on monumental buildings with a modern twist, the malleability of the zinc giving the Temple Sinai both vertical and horizontal curves.

On the California College of the Arts housing dormitory in a very urban setting in Oakland, MHA used Pre-weathered Gray VM Zinc to create an elliptical shape that encompasses the lounges on each floor. A traditionally difficult shape to build because it has no constant radius, metal allowed it to take form.

"It's definitely a material people identify with as a high quality, permanent material that's used on buildings of some sort of importance. Using it on institutional buildings and urban buildings, it provides a stronger appearance than other materials," Horton said. "In San Francisco, stucco is pretty common. If you take the exact same building and clad it in metal, the metal clad building would be perceived as a higher level building.

"It's very clean material. It can provide incredibly sharp joinery and edges. To a certain degree, it's self-cleaning, it provides a luster. We used aluminum on a winery and it just catches the light. All the way around, it's a spectacular material to use. For many clients, it also provides the idea that the downstream maintenance is significantly less. Clients have the idea that it's a no-maintenance building, but those don't exist."

Horton added that along with its ability to be shaped, metal allows for hundreds of different options in terms of color and texture. MHA has used bronze, for instance, on the inside of a restaurant, and decorated other interiors with support columns and steel surrounds on fireplaces.

Satisfying the Neighbors

08-2010 Temple Sinai 048bMetal's formability and feeling of being light yet significant, make it a good fit for the urban condition. Urban projects, according to Horton, are under constant pressure with regards to space and the concerns of neighbors, interest groups and municipalities-particularly in California.

"You spend a lot of time rendering, modeling and shaping buildings," Horton said. "In the end, for the developer, time becomes the ultimate determinate on whether or not the project is going to happen. Some people just want to hold it up long enough to kill it.

"You try as best as possible to satisfy as many people as possible. You depend on the permitting agency to weigh that balance. On the CCA dorm, for example, the neighbors were particularly concerned about one face of the building, so we moved it back from the street. We changed the color on that building. That's the Rubik's Cube the architect needs to solve. What can fit, what might fit."