Shifting Sands: Lands End Lookout Visitor Center

Lands End Lookout is an extraordinary site at the intersection of the dynamic Pacific and a lively urban environment.

Sitting exposed on the bluffs above the old Sutro baths, Lands End Lookout offers a sheltered view of the wild and rugged shoreline. Photo: Marion Brenner

Surface Design Inc. (SDI), a San Francisco-based landscape architecture and urban design firm, led the revitalization of the grounds surrounding the new visitor’s center. The result is an intimate portal into a native landscape restoration process within a wild and sometimes tumultuous environment. Easily accessible from the city, right on a bus line, and within walking distance of a good cocktail–the result is a perch from which to watch Nature unfold.

Lorene Edwards Forkner: What would you like us to learn about balancing Nature and a built environment?

James Lord, SDI: SDI wanted the design to subtly reflect the forces of the coastline but with a level of sophistication and usability that enhances the urban environment. Fierce winds and often extremely foggy conditions sometimes make the site unwelcoming. We wanted to build upon that energy rather than compete with it.  Designed spaces needed to work with nature instead of against it. Strategically placed walls breakdown prevailing winds and establish an outdoor amphitheater that is comfortable and protected.

The project is a collaboration between the National Parks Service and the National Parks Conservancy. Photo: Marion Brenner

LEF: Who is behind this project which is both habitat restoration and the renovation of a historical site?

JL: The project came about as collaboration between the National Parks Service and the National Parks Conservancy, which is the organization responsible for Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge Visitors Plaza.

LEF: Talk about the different ways SDI has tried to both conserve and curate nature at Land’s End for economic and environmental sustainability.

JL: Although the budget was fairly limited our client allowed us to think creatively about the use and sourcing of materials. Ultimately, we met our budget by sourcing all materials from within a 100-mile radius; some even came directly from the site itself. The wood for the benches came from fallen cypress trees in the Presidio and milled locally, the dune screens are reclaimed fence posts from Petaluma, the dune sand came from local construction sites, and the oyster mulch was salvaged from the site and reused. Native plants used in the dune restoration were collected as seed from the local watershed and grown in the nursery at the Presidio. Volunteers from the NPC Stewardship program reintroduced the natives onto the site, which had previously been dominated by invasive species. On a site so rich with San Francisco history, we’re hoping to add new layers to visitors’ experience by exploring ways of expressing nature, economics, and history through materials.

Dune screens, which follow lines generated off the architecture of the nearby visitor’s center, will ultimately shape and reshape the landscape through wind and rain each season. Photo: Marion Brenner

LEF: Nothing is very static about a shoreline; even the title of the project, Shifting Sands, signifies the passage of time. Talk about the “dynamic and evolving” nature of the site and how that factored into the design.

JL: From the very beginning we understood that the extreme coastal exposure of the site was going to dictate the design. Obviously, trying to control the natural environment such as constant salt spray, fierce winds or dense fog would be useless on a site like this.  Therefore, we carefully selected materials that would positively weather and age with exposure to the environment. The “patina” of these materials offers a story of time and change to the visitor, especially those who visit the site throughout the years to come.

For the dune restoration we created a framework more than a final design. Early successional plants like lupin (Lupinus chamissonis) may give way to more lasting plants like California sagebrush (Artemesia californica), Coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium), and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), allowing the composition of the landscape to be in constant change as the restoration matures.

Newly installed dune restoration plantings behind burly benches crafted from fallen cypress trees salvaged from the Presidio. Photo: Marion Brenner