Chinatown San Francisco Case Study

The studio will delve into the topics of cultural tourism, related to John Ruskin’s formative influence on shaping contemporary debates in tourism studies, the impact of heritage tourism, modern forms of secular pilgrimage and the question of cultural identity as a commoditized experience. The notion of the tourist versus the traveler, a notion explored in Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky provides another lens for the studio to investigate the relationships between architecture and the construction of the “tourist gaze”. The studio will take on the topic of cultural tourism in the context of the historical legacy of the oldest Chinatown in North America located in San Francisco. Covering 24 urban blocks, Chinatown SF is the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia and has retained its own heritage identity, customs, languages, places of worship and social clubs.

Dating back to 1850, Chinatown SF was the port of entry for early Chinese immigrants or Guangdong pioneers who were fleeing poverty in the Pearl River Delta. Many of the early immigrants worked as mine workers during California’s Gold Rush, and later provided manual labor for the Central Pacific Railroad (the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad) from 1865-1869. The demographics from 1850 to 1890 was largely shaped by the various immigration laws that formally criminalized or prohibited immigration of women and children, as a response to the formation and growth of prostitution. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, San Francisco’s tourism industry began to flourish and Chinatown became an exotic tourist destination deeply mired with associations to vice to appeal to working-class Caucasians. Over the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinatown would continue to evolve and undergo a series of reconstructions following the events of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the local quarantine and burning of property caused by fears of Bubonic Plague, earthquakes, fires and attempted mass relocations. As Chinatown established itself as a tourist destination and evolving community, its evolution is constantly shaped and balanced by contradicting desires of the community’s desire to “modernize” the neighborhood and the planning committees seeking to preserve “Oriental” aesthetics.

Portsmouth Square & Hotel

The design intervention will take on the case study of Portsmouth Square, where early immigrants settled as early as the 1850s, and has in recent years been slated for a complete overhaul by the Recreation & Parks Department of San Francisco. Students will be asked to redesign Portsmouth Square to accommodate multi-generation users, along with the adjacent Brutalist Hilton hotel tower which comprises of 544 guest rooms. Students will be asked to demolish the enclosed pedestrian bridge currently linking the hotel to the square, and propose landscaping, a small clubhouse or community center and outdoor leisure spaces. A main component of the architectural brief will be to keep the Chinese Cultural Center which currently leases 20,000 sq ft within the Hilton for rotating exhibitions.

The studio is centered on the rethinking of the hotel and cultural center. The concept of the hotel as we know it today evolved over centuries and is continuously shaped by contemporary cultural/socio-economic forces. The current pandemic, recent platforms and trends such as Airbnb and co-living have disrupted the hotel industry, forcing us to question what new forms the “hotel” can take on in the future, how it can interface with the local community and their role in the promotion of cultural tourism. Today’s hotels operate in isolation from the surrounding communities but if we look at its early origins, the hotel of the past often provided unique social spaces for the community, serving various functions such as—(thermal baths in Rome, ryokans in Japan, hospices, monasteries and inns) as a space of refuge for travelers. The hotel typology represents a convergence of public and private realms, with the notion of simultaneously being “at home” and “away” is at its core.

All Semesters

Spring 2024
Advanced Design Studio: Reconsidering Representation
Nader Tehrani, Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh, Beom Jun Kim
Spring 2023
Advanced Design Studio: A particular (New England) building
Carrie Norman, Thomas Kelley, Violette de la Selle
Spring 2021
Advanced Design Studio: Art, Culture, and the Neighborhood
Melissa DelVecchio, Ana María Durán Calisto
Spring 2020
Advanced Design Studio: The Opera House of the Future
Francine Houben, Isaäc Kalisvaart, Ruth Mackenzie, George Knight