Embarcadero Center Digital Wayfinding

A Classic Reborn

At San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, RTKL rethinks wayfinding in the digital era, but respects the landmark architecture.

Much has changed since the concrete towers of the John C. Portman-designed Embarcadero Center began to rise in San Francisco’s Financial District in the late 1960s, and were finally completed in the early 1980s.

An example of progressive urban development then and an iconic piece of architecture now, the Embarcadero Center was lately in need of a clarified user experience, a new wayfinding and information program, and an overall rejuvenation. Owner Boston Properties had engaged several design firms for the project, but was discouraged by their recommendations to either tear out the existing architecture or cover it. But when they invited RTKL’s Los Angeles-based environmental graphic design team in to survey the project, they got a nice surprise: a design team that wanted to work with the architecture, not against it.

“It’s poured-in-place concrete: it’s not going anywhere,” says Cody Clark, RTKL Principal in Charge of the project. “It has some challenges from a circulation standpoint, but our approach was to embrace it and create a symbiotic relationship between the navigation and this landmark architecture.”

RTKL’s scope was to complete a master plan for public and retail spaces and design a linked static and interactive wayfinding system. For the client, integrating technology was key. Getting ahead of digital signage and media trends would not only pull the Embarcadero Center into the 21st century, but would streamline its advertising and event promotions, create a linked digital wayfinding system, and give customers access to more information about retail offerings. A primary goal was to retire old static retail directories and replace them with interactive touchscreens supported by phone and tablet apps.

Embracing the architecture

The Embarcadero Center sits on four city blocks, its four main towers atop connected concrete decks. The center is configured with amenity-based retail on the ground floor, office lobbies, restaurants, and retail on the second floor, and restaurants and office tenants on the third (deck) level. The office towers and hotel rise above these levels, forming a strong, simple profile that has become a classic “brand” in the San Francisco skyline.

But from the ground, things aren’t so simple. While many people working in the area use the Embarcadero as a thoroughfare, the pedestrian experience has always been considered cold and confusing. Drop-offs for retail and office spaces are on opposite sides of the buildings, and while office space is still the economic engine of the center, it is not at all clear from the street how to get to the office lobbies. At the retail level, where most people enter, huge concrete pillars obstruct sightlines and impede circulation, making orientation difficult. The retail podium is partially exposed to the rain, wind, and fog, sometimes creating the effect of a wind tunnel. And all that concrete sucks up the light.

“It’s a rather brutal environment,” explains Clark. “So in addition to creating a clear wayfinding system, one of the things we wanted to do was provide a lighter approach, making sure that the majority of signs were lit. And we saw bright pops of color as a way to make the retail environment warmer and more friendly.”

Existing signage was confusing—Clark describes it as a “Frankensteined” system consisting of vestiges of the original ‘80s scheme with band-aids added over the years. To the RTKL team’s relief, the client agreed to start from scratch. Project fabricator Corporate Sign Systems coordinated the removal of more than 15 tons of signage from the four buildings. The replacement signage weighed in at just 5 tons.  Most of the old signage was broken down and the various parts recycled under San Francisco’s Green Halo Program. Some of the aluminum plate material was reused as structural reinforcements internal to the new Embarcadero signage.

Striking a balance

The new wayfinding program needed to deliver two major improvements: direct people to the office lobbies and towers above, and re-energize the retail podium, which exists primarily for the convenience of the office workers. The system also needed to balance traditional static wayfinding signage with new technology that would engage shoppers and help enliven the retail component.

At the entries, RTKL’s program begins with slim, internally lit monoliths that identify major destinations, define circulation paths according to street, lobby, and promenade levels, and often provide simplified site maps.

Inside, the RTKL team decided that mounting signage on the center’s behemoth concrete pillars was an obvious integrated solution. And in contrast to the hodge-podge of freestanding, four-sided signs that had been causing confusion previously, the team chose a more minimal and strategic approach.

“We knew we wanted to put signs only at critical points, so we studied the entrances to see how people enter and traverse the buildings,” says Clark. The main circulation pattern is a cross shape—people walk in from the four sides of the building and toward the middle to the vertical access points. So we knew we really only had to get people to the center core, where they would get on escalators.”

Oriented toward the escalators, static directional signage is wrapped around the columns, mounted flush to the surface. Painted, fabricated aluminum panels hold screenprinted directional text with stainless steel arrows that add tactile interest, while stainless-steel-framed glass panels carry level numbers and the name of the center in painted and stainless steel dimensional letters. RTKL used the existing number- and color-coding system for the four buildings, but refreshed the color palette.

The buildings’ concrete construction, as well as the open-air, high-traffic conditions, posed the greatest challenges for fabrication, says Danny Moran, President of Corporate Sign Systems. “Bringing the signage concepts to life technologically while maintaining design intent and high longevity were major challenges.”

Fabrication was kept as efficient as possible by making all the directional signs the same size, even though the column dimensions vary from building to building. “We basically designed for the smallest column,” says Clark. “But that was a challenge because there were not many as-built drawings. They were all structural drawings, all hand-drawn. Each column provided a completely different scenario.”

Entering the digital era

Boston Properties wanted interactive retail directories that would make wayfinding easier and the shopping experience more engaging. They also wanted the ability to connect the directories with mobile apps for phones and tablets. And the directories had to serve the needs of the center’s office users as well.

“For office users, it was a pretty pragmatic solution: they just need to figure out how to get up to the lobbies,” says Clark. “For the retail user, though, each building looks the same, and it can be a very disorienting experience to walk from one building to another if you’re trying to shop. So we did a lot to help that shopper find their way and stay longer, and made retail tenants more visible.” Since many San Franciscans use the center as a commuter hub, the directories also integrate local transit information.

Array Interactive worked with the client and design/fabrication team to develop basic system architecture and content, and RTKL consulted with the fabricator on materiality and how the wayfinding elements should work with the static signage system.

Meshing the interactive directories visually with the static signs was important, so the directories—one at street level and one at lobby level for each building—are housed in cabinets similar to those used for freestanding directional pylons. Maps are the same as those used in the static wayfinding, “so it feels pretty seamless,” notes Clark.

Moran says original specifications for the directories called for acrylic faces, painted aluminum returns, and touchscreen monitors. During the early project stages, Boston Properties opted to upgrade to ½-inch glass faces and stainless steel returns. To create a seamless appearance, Corporate Sign Systems recommended touch-foil technology rather than conventional touchscreens. 

“Since the glass could not be cut as one piece with an opening for the touchscreens, we chose to use one contiguous glass panel, touch foil technology, and a separate LCD monitor,” explains Moran. The clear touch foil is mounted second surface to the glass face, and surrounded by a translucent digital print that is also mounted second-surface to the glass. The LCD monitor is mounted to the internal sign structure, independent of the glass and a quarter-inch behind the touch foil.  “Even though there is a half-inch of glass between the user and the touch foil, the electromagnetic field created by the user's touch is transferred through the glass to the touch foil sensor, which sends the signal through a connected, non-visible circuit ‘whip’ to the display and mini-PC inside,” he adds.

For now, the directories can interact with smart phones via QR codes that go to the center’s website. RTKL also developed conceptual design and basic architecture for iPhone and iPad apps that will go live in the future.

Boston Properties—and the people who use the Embarcadero Center—are happy with a new information system that makes it easier to navigate the site, and especially the interactive elements that bring retail, transportation, and entertainment offerings to life.

Clark shares his client’s sentiment that today’s customers want information at their fingertips. “The challenge is to give them the latest and greatest in product, technology, and leisure offerings, and interactive directories are the first step toward that.”

“We know that ‘Smart Environments’ will be ubiquitous, intuitive, integrated, and personally accessed,” he continues. “For now, personal devices will be the wayfinding walking sticks to navigate the complex environments of the future. Smartphones will be the personal access portal to embedded informational and navigational layers of hidden content in our environments. Only time will tell the future of the ‘stick in the ground’ wayfinding.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 04, 2012


Client:  Boston Properties

Location:  San Francisco

Open Date:  December 2012

Design:  RTKL

Design Team:  Nate Cherry vice president in charge; Cody Clark principal in charge; Benny Chu lead designer; Josh Petty, Megan Cerda designers

Fabrication:  Corporate Sign Systems

Consultants:  Array Interactive media; KMG lighting

Photos:  Dave Whitcomb/RTKL

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