individual walking meandering pathways through the uber garden
Meandering pathways and tall plantings provide cover from the hectic street beyond. Courtesy Marion Brenner

Wandering Through Uber HQ’s Secret Garden

Landscape architects Surfacedesign have created a surprisingly calming retreat for employees—and the public—tucked between the tech giant’s glassy new San Francisco buildings.

Standing apart from the bland office and housing complexes of San Francisco’s Mission Bay (a recently developed district built over former rail yards and industrial sites), Uber’s new headquarters by SHoP Architects, Huntsman Architectural Group, and others looks much more carefully thought out than its neighbors. Portions of its facades can open automatically (accordion-style), depending on the weather. Criss-crossing bridges link some of its buildings. A variety of work spaces can be seen behind continuous and mostly transparent frontings. When substantial resources are applied to a project like this, the landscape can often be an afterthought. But in this case, the leader in transit technology also focused on where you walk.

This is not a restoration project, but a new landscape composed of space, color, season, and smell.

Roderick Wyllie

Uber’s noted focus on disruption was enough to get local landscape architects Surfacedesign going. The neighborhood—if it can be called that—looks like a suburban office park searching for urban density; it’s ordered, if not downright formal. By contrast, Surfacedesign’s new public space, nestled between two of the campus’s new buildings and open to the public, is informal and even subtly playful. The name, Pierpoint Lane, refers to the alley that once existed here.

Mission Bay is basically constructed on landfill, and Surfacedesign revealed the truth of the substrata by installing long pieces of Montana Elk Mountain Sandstone at various angles. They feel like the disrupted fill left by seismic armageddon. But the long pieces of stone, both smooth and rough, are arranged artfully and serve as benches and planters. The park’s diverse plants—including shade, accent, and understory trees as well as garden, groundcover, and bioretention plantings—were chosen to be drought tolerant, though not necessarily all native. “This is not a restoration project, but a new landscape composed of space, color, season, and smell, and yet it is as much about performance as aesthetics,” says Surfacedesign principal Roderick Wyllie. “Our approach was to meet all of the performative metrics that the city’s public utilities commission outlines, while also providing a rich, immersive, textured, colorful seasonal expression of a garden.”

The park in front of a parking structure.
Tulip trees help soften the impact of a neighboring parking structure. Courtesy Marion Brenner

Pierpoint Lane, its surface set with precast concrete pavers and stone bands, is the park’s main circulation axis, with openings for smaller, meandering pedestrian paths leading to more intimate, garden-like spots. Surfacedesign planted tulip trees, vine maples, and eastern redbuds to soften the sharp edges of a parking structure (designed by local firm WRNS) along one border.

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During the pandemic, the landscape maintenance has not been ideal, but the design accommodates a shaggy haircut very well. The only jarring note is some of the sculpture, selected by others. Berkeley artist Masako Miki is at her best with abstract works: here, her representations of lips and a moon feel more like playground furniture. The immense Orbital by San Francisco’s Futureforms might have worked in the now legendary I-Beam disco, but it disrupts the otherwise calming landscape. It looks like it might float away in a windstorm. Then we would be left with a more nuanced, thoughtful, and gently disruptive open space.

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