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The Ford Assembly Building

Richmond, California
Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects

Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects restore the essence of an aging icon of 20th-century industrial architecture for a viable future

By John King

The Ford Assembly Plant in Richmond, California, was the largest of its ilk on the West Coast: a 517,000-square-foot factory on the edge of San Francisco Bay supplied by water and conceived as a single linear space beneath a sawtooth roof that flooded the work spaces with indirect daylight. Designed by Albert Kahn in 1931 with minimal ornamentation except for the streamlined deco detailing at either end, the 1⁄4-mile-long behemoth languished after Ford moved to suburban pastures in the 1950s.

The Ford Assembly Building
Photo © Billy Hustace

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Program

The building was empty when its new owner, the City of Richmond, placed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. One year later, the Loma Prieta earthquake caused major damage. For the next 15 years, the city spent $20 million on seismic upgrades while being courted by developers who arrived with big plans only to edge away. Finally, Richmond sold the building to Orton Development in 2004 for $5.4 million.
The obvious need was to return the time-ravaged structure to a workable condition, but finding a use that made business sense loomed equally large. The vast shell couldn’t be easily converted for small tenants or live-work spaces. And Richmond’s location on the northeast edge of the bay (along with a reputation for violent crime and bumpy politics) made it a tough sell for the large technology firms that have fueled urban rejuvenation elsewhere in the region.

Orton’s strategy was to restore and modernize the shell before trying to court potential tenants who might be drawn to large blocks of unimproved space, so the design team, headed by Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, concentrated on the building envelope rather than high design: “There was a lot of broken glass, a lot of rusted-out steel,” Marcy Wong recalled. “It was almost like an outdoor environment inside.”

Solution

The architects made as few visual interventions as possible — in part to focus attention on the factory’s innate dignity but also to ensure that the project would receive the historic tax credits needed for its financing package. All exterior work was done under the eye of the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service, both of which accepted the need for improvisation. With the bands of skylights set into the sawtooth roof, for instance, Wong’s team was allowed to replace most of the corroded system with new glass framed in rust-resistant aluminum casements. But for the two bays most visible from the nearby roads, salvageable portions from Kahn’s day were consolidated so that they read as intended, with steel casements and wire-fortified glass.

Another trade-off involved the parapet on the end of the building facing the bay. The original limestone cap collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, and regulators at first suggested an exact copy of the original. Cost and weight issues dictated otherwise, and the architects were allowed to replicate Kahn’s details in fiber-reinforced polymer.

This end of the building also faced scrutiny from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency. The plant’s final bay — a space 400 feet wide, 100 feet deep, and 65 feet high where cranes once transferred raw goods from ships into the factory — sits on a pier and thus comes under public control. The developers recast the 1-acre room as a vast event space with original pulleys and an entire crane left (secured) as artifacts. Called the Craneway Pavilion, it has already been used for a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance as well as private parties, and it can be entered during the day from the adjacent Bay Trail.

The architects had a freer hand elsewhere in the interior: carving an airy manufacturing space for Vetrazzo, which recycles glass into stylish tiles; converting the north bays into offices for the retailer Mountain Hardware; and accenting the blue-collar past in the Boiler House restaurant. In the lobby of the largest tenant, the solar-panel firm SunPower, the most striking design detail is a grand staircase of thin steel where the handrail doubles as a truss suspended from the ceiling. “There was a very functional reason we came up with the scheme,” Wong admitted. “Our engineer warned us not to breach the existing (concrete foundation) slab, because who knows what might happen.”

Commentary

The Ford Assembly Plant project has already received an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and with good reason: It demonstrates that a monolithic relic of our industrial heyday can be reimagined for use in today’s diverse economy. This doesn’t feel like a multitenant structure so much as a cluster of workshops and offices that happen to be within one gaunt shell. There are also palpable, comforting reminders of the passage of time. The facade has its share of cracked or missing bricks, and the event space is a ghostly hint of the past’s churning production lines. The plant’s story is still being written, and the most interesting chapters might lie ahead.

Owner:
Eddie Orton, Orton Development, Inc.

Gross square footage:
525,000 sq. Ft.

Completion date: August 2009

Architect:
Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects
800 Bancroft Way   Ste 200 
Berkeley CA 94710
tel 510 843 0916 
fax 510 843 0949   

John King is the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic.

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