Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco

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In the 1950's the Fisherman's Wharf area contained large derelict warehouses and the area was rapidly declining. The revitalisation of Ghirardelli Square, in which the oldest building was constructed in 1864, was America's first urban adaptive re-use of old buildings to form a 'speciality retail centre'. The complex, completed in the early 1960's, is strategically placed near the waterfront terminus of one of the cable car routes from the city centre and enjoys views over the bay beyond.

from Colquhoun, Urban Regeneration , p57

Ghirardelli Square is located close to the harbour and waterfront area of San Francisco which is dominated by a complex of converted dock buildings and piers given over to predominantly visitor attractions: restaurants, gift shops and amusement arcades . Ghirardelli Square was itself built by the Ghirardelli family between 1836 and 1916 as a complex of warehouse buildings belonging to the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. The site with its existing buildings was purchased by the Roth family in 1965 with the intention of 'creating an environment that would enhance the historical nature of the building and keep it alive' (Robertson, 1994). An additional eight new buildings were constructed within the site to 'harmonise with the existing ones', in terms of architectural detailing, scale and materials.

The majority of the buildings in the scheme are of three or four storeys. The site is entirely self contained, occupying a complete block, with gated entrances and staircases and ramps providing access . There are a range of predominantly leisure uses occupying the buildings on the site: up-market 'designer' gift and clothes shops, restaurants, an art gallery, small theatre, museum and ice cream parlour. There is also a limited amount of office accommodation. There are three distinct open plazas in the development. The site steps down towards the waterfront and has extensive views over San Francisco harbour and is highly visible from much of the waterfront area. Its visibility is further heightened by a giant illuminated sign erected on the roof of one of the main buildings in the complex .

Spatially the scheme is connected in with its urban context but is also separated from it. There is no entrance charge and, in this respect, it is somewhat like an open urban mall. It is also closed at night, from about 11pm to 8 am.

Critical evaluation


The scheme is now jointly owned by an American company, North Western Regional Life Insurance, and a British development and property firm specialising in shopping mall developments, Capital and Counties. According to the site manager, the original intention of the conversion was to create the first festival market place, emphasising its historical associations, and aimed at drawing in the local bay area 'community'. Its success was always dependent on its retail turnover, privately sponsored and relying on renting out shops and other commercial premises.

However, as San Francisco developed as a centre for tourism in the 1970's, the focus of the scheme shifted away from the local community towards attracting the visitor dollar. Likewise, the site manager commented that the development of the mall as a type of retail and leisure environment subtly changed the management policy for the space.

The policy now is no longer to attempt to compete with either the out of town malls or the other tourist waterfront outlets and spaces in the immediate area, but to become again more locally orientated and more up-market.

The principal strategy in attracting a particular kind of user is the letting policy for shops and restaurants. The shops in particular specialise in expensive clothes and fashion accessories or tasteful 'ethnic' gifts and art works . Whilst not wishing to target too specifically a professional or other potentially high spending group, the scheme is different from the other tourist spaces on the waterfront in not having a video and pin ball hall, and in not allowing cheap gift shops

Organised Events and Promotion.

The kind of entertainment and organised events allowed in the open plazas is also deliberately managed in such a way as to contribute to a particular middle of the road, slightly up-market and fun ambience.

The use of the open plaza spaces for organised events is tightly controlled. No organised activity not approved of by management is allowed. This includes busking, street artists, any kind of street vending, any kind of political or religious meeting, and people conducting surveys of any sort (including academic research involving interviewing users).

The final element in the manufacture of Ghirardelli as a particular public environment by management, is its marketing and promotion. This emphasises the idea of a safe, family orientated, up-market, specialist leisure place with historical associations. There is also a concern that this image is presented in a consistent fashion in which all media for advertising and getting the message across to its public presents the same qualities to a similar potential user group.

There are a number of semiotic clues in the publicity material produced to advertise the scheme which are intended to suggest a reading of the space as exclusive, historically significant, and as a generally 'quality' environment. For example, the flier distributed to hotels and other visitor information centres, is titled a 'directory', it is printed on sepia coloured paper, the copperplate type face is clearly calculated to connote some vague association with the nineteenth century; the stress in its listing of retailers and restaurants is on 'quality', 'speciality', the 'unique', mixed with the 'socially conscious'.


Click on the images below for a larger version. Click 'medium' at the bottom of the pop up box to get the larger image. (usually between 200 and 700k)

General view from the Bay

Alcatraz prison as seen from Ghirardelli Square

View from Aquatic Park

View from North Point Street

View along Bay Street

View along North Point Street

View along Larkin Street

View along Larkin Street

Entrance from Larkin Street

Stepped entrance from Larkin Street

Circle Gallery entrance from Bay Street


View of main public space within Ghirardelli Square

View in main space looking towards information and security kiosk

View of main public space within Ghirardelli Square

Secondary public space set out for performance

Plaque at entrance indicating that Ghirardelli Square is private space, legally

General view of main space with fountain in foreground


Colquhoun, I., (1995) Urban Regeneration, an international perspective, Batsford, London (p57)

Cantacuzino, S., (1975) New Uses for Old Buildings, The Architectural Press, London (p198)

Freeman, A., (1986) 'Fine Tuning a landmark of adaptive use: Ghirardelli Square gets a respectful renovation', Architecture: the AIA Journal, Nov. pp61-71

Nesmith, L.,et al (1986) 'Interiors', Architecture: the AIA Journal, July, pp82-85

Reeve, A. R., (1995) Urban Design and Places of Spectacle, unpublished PhD thesis, JCUD, Oxford Brookes University