American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is San Francisco’s preeminent theater company. The 50-year-old arts nonprofit recently commissioned the design and renovation of a derelict cinema on San Francisco’s Market Street. Care was taken to sensitively retrofit the shell of the former 725-seat cinema: the façade was restored and essential modern theater elements were layered over the raw backdrop of the original building. Their programmatic needs included an intimate, experimental live theater venue; flexible, creative space for education and new play development programs; and community performance space.
Located in a transitional area targeted for urban regeneration, this project is a highly visible symbol of change and possibility, reactivating a 100-year-old building whose decline has paralleled that of its surrounding neighborhood. As part of the renovation, the project posed a challenge of creating a sub-brand for A.C.T.’s new alternative venue that is easily identifiable as part of the parent brand, as well as a full package of environmental graphics that reflects that sub-brand.
The project demanded extensive, multidisciplinary collaboration within the project team, to ensure the theater’s graphic identity integrated seamlessly with the restored architecture, and the adjoining streetscape. The design team also worked closely with A.C.T. from the initial concept design to establish their vision and work with them to reach a design solution that would be transformative for theaters on a wider scale, while also giving back to the mid-market/tenderloin community and the city as a whole. This transformation was achieved through reaching out to new audiences, as current theater audience demographics are increasingly aging. In order to keep theater vital, it must respond to new generation of theater lovers and hence it was evident from the project’s inception that theater was positioned in an area where this potential audience is currently living and working.
Focused on new work, emerging artists, arts education, and community outreach, The Strand’s identity had to convey the unadorned immediacy of experimental theater and reflect the gritty, transitional aspects of its surrounding neighborhood. Inspired by the grittier qualities of the new theater’s neighborhood and the experimental nature of The Strand, the design response customized the nonprofit’s existing brand typeface to look like a stencil. This theme was carried throughout the building, inflecting every part of the user experience from exterior identification and signage to interior donor recognition and wayfinding.
New A.C.T. brand identity elements were used in the lobby’s two-story, 504 square-foot translucent LED screen—the first permanent indoor usage of this technology, and an exhibition space for local video art. Described as a “sublime oasis” by the San Francisco Chronicle, the lobby café is open daily to the public and has become a destination for local residents and workers to meet.
The restored façade includes new double-height windows and neon signage, that dramatically open the lobby to Market Street and the United Nations Plaza. Striking vermillion paint announces its presence in all directions and invites passersby inside. This vibrant vermillion forms part of The Strand’s visual identity as it continues through to the walls of the box office and the main theater.
Paying tribute to the theater’s long and colorful history, restored and reused elements include the cinema auditorium’s 1917 ornamentation, the 1959 cinema marquee neon letters (now in the café), and even circa-2005 squatter graffiti art (now backstage).
Ultimately, the success of the project’s design response has been highlighted through industry recognition. The Strand was also honored by American Institute of Architects’ San Francisco chapter with its inaugural Revitalization Award in 2015. The new design has seen more than 50,000 patrons visit the new theater since its opening, thus providing the client and design team with an extremely positive project outcome.
"The bold color of the building and strong brand connection throughout all elements of this project. The careful integration of digital media into a historic building is unexpected and creates a strong sense of place. I love the thoughtful consideration of every detail from the donor wall to stage door."
"This signage and identity for this project feels complete and reinforces the character of building and environment through the consistent use of stenciled letters as font throughout the program. The program is minimal and devoid of color fitting for the white and concrete interiors. The use of the half-bullet points in the donor wall is a sensitive nod to the identity and the play of light and shadow."
Lonny Israel (graphic design studio lead), Nicholas Gerstner (graphic design project manager), Brad Thomas (designer), Dan Maxfield (designer), Pauline Cheng (designer), Nathan Bluestone (designer)
Michael Duncan, FAIA (design director), Gene Schnair, FAIA (managing partner), Keith Boswell, FAIA (technical partner), Maurice Hamilton, AIA (senior technical architect), Gayle Tsern Strang, AIA (project manager), Aaron Jensen, AIA (senior design architect), Joan Young Park and Beatrice Hsu (technical designers), Sally Anderson (specifications)
Additional Project Team: Yuji Nishioska, Lisa Hedstrom, Richard Henocha, Jeffrey Bajamundi, Douglas Smith, Eric Cole
Thomas Swan Signs, DSA Phototech