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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Transamerica Pyramid

The Transamerica Pyramid totally dominates the San-Francisco
skyline as depicted by artist, Romain Trystram.
When we were visiting San Francisco in 2014, we tried to take in all the iconic landmarks. We visited Fisherman's Wharf, drove down Lombard Street, enjoyed Golden Gate Park, crossed the bridge by the same name, visited the Painted Ladies, and saw the Transamerica Pyramid (it would be hard to visit San Francisco and not see it). However, what with the always limited amount of time, seeing it from several blocks away is about all we did. I suppose if it had a top floor observation level we might have been more prone to taking the time to do so. Of course, the problem with that is that the Transamerica Pyramid has no top floor. There is an uppermost "level" forty-eight stories up (a conference room with an astounding 360-degree view) but from there, it's climbing steep steel stairs another hundred feet up into the aluminum spire, with a final 112 feet using nothing more than a ladder to the very unaccommodating tip. Few people do that, even for a magnificent view of he city from 853 feet in the sky.
San Francisco is an artist's city, and few of those who paint it,  haven't included its second most famous landmark. The painting at top-right is by Lynne Newman
As with most landmarks, manmade or otherwise, artists have taken the inspiration they provide and made the most of it. From the Great Pyramids of Giza to the Transamerica Pyramid of San Francisco, their works of art abound. Just walk into any of the city's hundreds of art galleries (or even souvenir emporiums) and count the pyramids you find. Paintings of Local color, like colorful locales and colorful locals, sell. The artist in charge of creating the original was architect William Pereira. If the name doesn't ring a bell, think Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel or the massive flying saucer-like structure that has become a symbol of LAX. He also designed the Los Angeles headquarters for Transamerica. The company no longer occupies either structure bearing its name.

Going up, 1969-72. It's not earthquake proof, but its
unique sloping facade make it earthquake resistant.
Although no longer Transamerica Corporation headquarters, like the Sears Tower in Chicago, the iconic building is still associated with the company. It is depicted as Transamerica's logo. The building is evocative of San Francisco and has become one of the many symbols of the city. Though derided by local residents as it was going up, and in fact, for sometime afterwards, the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the building in 2009 as "an architectural icon of the best sort - one that fits its location and gets better with age. And, being the tallest building in the city, the Pyramid serves as a visual point of reference for tourists and longtime residents alike in traversing San Francisco's horrendous grid of hilly thoroughfares.

At only 853 feet in height, the Transamerica Pyramid, even as it was completed,
never came close to being the tallest building in the world; though it
was the tallest building west of Chicago for a short time.
Though not breaking any height records, the Transamerica Pyramid is tall. It's a four-sided pyramid with two "wings" to accommodate an elevator shaft on the east and a stairwell and smoke tower (for firefighting) on the west. The top 212 feet (65 meters) of the building is the spire. There are four cameras pointed in the four cardinal directions at the top of this spire forming a virtual observation deck. In the lobby, four monitors display an easily unapproachable view from above. Visitors can aim these cameras in any direction and zoom in as they wish. As such the virtual observation platform, is open 24 hours a day. Previously the observation platform, was only 27 floors up. It was closed after the September 11, 2001. The top of the Transamerica Pyramid is covered with aluminum panels. During the Christmas holiday season, the Fourth of July, and on each anniversary of the New York World Trade Center attack, a brightly twinkling beacon called the "Crown Jewel" is lit at the top of the pyramid.

Seismic studies using scale models reveal the strength of a well-anchored pyramid even as compared to
Quite apart from terrorist terror, San Francisco is home to an even worse form of terror--earthquakes. It might seem like folly to build (or even enter) a skyscraper 853 feet tall, given the San Andreas fault running just a few miles off the California coast. But San Franciscans learned from the devastating 1906 earthquake that all but destroyed the city. They learned they could build tall buildings designed to shake with the quake (called seismic isolation). The only problem was, such structures were exceedingly expensive, reserved for historic landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge approaches, vital public buildings such as hospitals, and those structures housing items of great value (like the de Young Museum of Art). Surprisingly, the Transamerica Pyramid does not fit any of those requirements. It is, instead, built on a broad, deep, anchoring, concrete pad (some nine feet thick). Instead, the building is designed to be ductile, meaning it is somewhat flexible, not in the hope of sustaining no damage in a possible quake, but in keeping those inside safe and allowing any damage to be repaired (short of demolishing the whole damned building). The diagrams (above and below) may help in illustrating this feature.

The building slopes from 174 feet square at its base to virtually zero at the top.
So, what's it like inside a pyramid. Well, we could summon up the spirit of the Pharaoh Cheops, or we could visit the building. Short of either such extreme, photos will have to suffice (below). Although one might expect something quite grand and astounding, the interior of the Transamerica Pyramid is neither. The main lobby is attractive, modern, minimalist, clean looking, and spacious, adorned with a changing selection of Postmodern art. Unlike its exterior, the inside falls somewhat short of breathtaking, at least until you ride one of the two elevators (the building has 18) that go clear up to the 48th floor, at which point you hardly notice the interior.

Thinking outside the box.


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