Cultural elements reinterpreted for Peace Plaza renovation

KEEPING THE FLAME ­— San Francisco contracted Macchiatto to find new interpretations of the “eternal flame” in the Japantown Peace Plaza. The design firm presented three options for consideration: (From L to R) an informational stone plaque, a perforated metal sheet depicting a flame and a lenticular design depicting poetry. courtesy of San Francisco Recreation and Parks

San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and the Japantown Task Force held a virtual community briefing Feb. 28 to discuss the cultural elements that will be implemented in the Japantown Peace Plaza. The plaza, which will undergo a $32 million renovation expected to start in the spring of 2024, will reinterpret several key cultural elements due to revised building codes and structural limitations.

“This is predominantly an infrastructure project,” Marien Coss, the project’s manager from the Recreation and Parks department, said. “It is a plaza that sits on two levels of the garage underground and it’s predominantly concerned about waterproofing and about the weight.”

Because of revised building codes and other structural and cost limitations, the project’s design team have had to do away with a water feature and an “eternal flame” that has decorated the plaza since its first iteration built in 1968. The community briefing offered several proposals on how to spiritually commemorate these features in the revised designs.

Coss presented several updates on the project, including the fact that it is now fully funded, thanks to additional federal funds that will finish closing an $8 million gap that developed after the pandemic sent construction costs soaring from the initial estimate of $24 million. Aside from the cultural elements the meeting primarily focused on, Coss also presented updates to the plaza’s layout, which replaced a grove of Japanese maple trees originally meant for the center of the plaza with cherry blossom trees. Due to structural limitations below the surface, the plaza will plant the trees in raised planters to promote healthier growth.

Coss and her team also highlighted other cultural elements, such as the reimplementation of preexisting boulders into the new design and the Peace Pagoda’s renovation. She also discussed lighting for the plaza, including how it could emulate a cultural design element omitted due to its weight.

Originally, the city envisioned a reflecting pool in the plaza, but the weight of the water made the project infeasible, according to Coss. In lieu of the literal water feature, Coss presented lights that would be projected onto the plaza to emulate the reflecting pool originally slated for the lower plaza.

In addition to the features Coss presented from the city, Jeremy Regenbogen of Macchiatto also presented his firm’s proposals to reinterpret the flame and water features. Regenbogen, who had previously designed visitor experiences for the Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge, presented three interpretations of the flame and water feature each.

Taking a note from traditional Japanese art and advice from project cultural consultant Masahiro Inoue, Regenbogen proposed three interpretations of “kasumi,” a poetic term for fog in Japanese, to be used as patterns for the plaza’s pavement.

“Fog is a dominant source of water for our community, for our environment. It’s a visual symbol for us, and it’s our intent to tie this back into the site through the paving,” he said.

Meeting attendees were allowed to vote between three interpretations of the fog pattern: a uniform pattern throughout the plaza, a similar fog pattern that “pools” where fog might form in a landscape and a dithered gradient depicting a Japanese landscape enshrouded by fog. Half of those surveyed chose the “pooling” pattern, while 33 percent chose the dithered pattern. About two dozen community members attended the meeting.

While some attendees commented that the second option flows with the plaza, others said the more abstract interpretations will be harder to “get.”

For the flame, since a literal open flame can no longer be used, Regenbogen presented three more proposals on how it could be represented in an interpretive panel to be displayed on the back wall of the plaza. The panel, to be back-lit with LEDs to create a “flame” effect, could be a more traditional stone panel with history of the flame’s origin and an accompanying poem from the Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine in Osaka, a more literal flame pattern punched out of metal to create an animated flame motif and a lenticular design with a bilingual poem about the Sumiyoshi shrine cut out, done in a patina finish. Most people opted for the more orthodox first design, while the second and third options received 23 and 14 percent of the vote respectively.

“#1. Since a poem would encourage people to think. #3 looks like a prison cell,” Sheridan Tatsuno said in the comments section.

Others agreed, calling the first option “timeless” or saying it “pulls the viewer in.” Still others were attracted to modern designs of the other two designs, and still another expressed none of the options particularly evoked a “flame element.”

Emily Murase, executive director of the Japantown Task Force, said her organization will continue collecting feedback from the community. She said the revised proposed designs will be displayed in the Japan Center West Mall, in the space formerly occupied by Auto Freak. The public may also comment online by visiting: https://forms.gle/MKKHm1W6u6Ctuvwi8.

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