Even at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday, San Francisco's Market Street corridor is hopping. Scores of people make their way up and down the street, some of them heading off for chores or errands or work, a few of them not quite finished reveling from the night before. But it's quiet, and with no shops open, free from the throngs that will arrive in only a few hours.
So for a little while, one plaza in particular is a perfect dawn destination for a visiting East Coaster not quite yet in chronological sync with the city. A humble square at Market Street and Yerba Buena Lane now boasts "Whispering Dishes," the first exhibit in the city's Living Innovation Zone initiative. Part pavilion, part tech display, it's a site that creates all new reasons to stop at a place already frequented by thousands of visitors for hundreds of purposes.
San Francisco's Living Innovation Zone is an unprecedented city program, anchored by the Exploratorium museum with the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation, the Planning Department's City Design Group, and the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District. The program targets Market Street sidewalk spots between Octavia Boulevard and the Embarcadero for public interventions. With some 20,000 pedestrians passing by on Market each day, Whispering Dishes is easily one of the most visible architectural installations in any American city going right now.
Built in late 2013 as the program's inaugural outing, Whispering Dishes is the work of the Exploratorium's Studio for Public Spaces and Gehl Architects, the Danish firm best known for public-planning projects ranging from the Strøget in Copenhagen to the new Times Square in New York. (Forgive the lousy photos; they're the author's.) For the Living Innovation Zone project, Studio for Public Spaces and Gehl built two pavilions, each with an 8-foot-tall concrete dish, that face one another over a 50-foot span of public plaza.
Framed by wooden fins, these mini-bandshells focus acoustic sound across the gap. A person sitting in a seat centered under one dish is able to hear someone whispering underneath the opposite shell. One of them features a small stationary bike (the pedals and seat, anyway) that lets users charge their phones through their own motion-generated electricity; a separate, smaller bench produces sound by touch-activated sensors on the armrests.
Reports from the project's unveiling last year indicate that the city is streamlining the permitting process in order to speed up the time between concept and execution. That makes the project a perfect fit for architect Jan Gehl, whose work is the study of public life, and better (and faster) urbanization. Gehl has transformed streetscapes around the world, working in places as forbidding as Moscow to transform the pedestrian experience.
Market Street is no Moscow Ring Road, of course: On paper, there's nothing about San Francisco's busiest commercial corridor that needs fixing. That's part of what makes the Living Innovation Zone project intriguing: It's an experiment in what can be gleaned by interrupting a space that is entirely commercially colonized. In that regard, it bears a passing resemblance to the anarchic notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone put forward by Hakim Bey way back in 1991.)
There's too much official signage surrounding Whispering Dishes for it to feel anarchic (not to mention the official support). But when it's not off-hours for Market Street, the project appears to proffer organic and unexpected uses for the plaza. Early this morning, it was a nice spot for meditation. Later today, I wouldn't be surprised to find a concert there.
Update: This post was clarified to include the Exploratorium's Studio for Public Spaces as a design lead and fabricator for the project.