Mark Cavagnero founded Mark Cavagnero Associates in 1988, and has guided its growth into a design-centered practice serving clients internationally. His work embodies a timeless quality, visible in a broad range of renovation and new construction work. Mark is focused on creating tangible spaces that encourage the ephemeral aspects of human interactions. As the founding principal of the firm, Mark provides leadership over the design of all projects within the office. He brings over three decades of expertise in the planning, design and construction and has been recognized for seamlessly integrating environmental, cultural and contextual strategies to curate a holistic design approach, through various building types from education, museums, civic buildings, theaters, and residential buildings.
We sat down with Mark to discuss how it all began, why he finds it hard to leave San Francisco and his unyielding sense of civic responsibility to create great architecture.
Can you tell us how Mark Cavagnero Associates was conceived?
The project that birthed the firm was done alongside an old friend and mentor, Edward Larrabee Barnes. We worked on the California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, a project that still feels like such a blessing, particularly to have been a part of it so early in my career. The sense of pride in building something that was both striking and that could touch so many different people was something I couldn’t let go of, and that sense of civic responsibility tied to creating great architecture was a guiding force for the firm in those early days, and continues to be.
What brought you to the Bay Area, having been originally from the East Coast?
Originally, school is what brought me here; I got my M.Arch from UC Berkeley. I had been working with Barnes in New York, but with the California Palace came our SF-based joint firm, Barnes and Cavagnero, which would eventually become Mark Cavagnero Associates. In the years since, I’ve found San Francisco to be a difficult city to leave. It has a pull and vibrancy that comes from all the different and diverse neighborhoods woven together, and that collective creativity has fed the work we’ve come to do in the years since.
You had at one time called The Chapel for Saint Mary’s in Albany, CA “a dream project”. Can you explain why this project was (and is) so significant?
Our office has always felt compelled to make architecture in the civic and cultural realm, to touch both the individual and the community. So much of that work has occupied the larger scale of museums and concert halls and campus buildings, and over the years, that work’s tended to scale up. The Chapel was an opportunity to condense our work into a tighter, more intimate space and focus on fostering a very specific individual connection and community’s congregation.
What would you consider to be the biggest change in the field of architecture and design since you opened your firm 30 years ago?
One of the most exciting shifts I’ve felt has actually been outside of the field of architecture – but is tied to it integrally. I’ve begun to actually enjoy walking into the planning department; where before, it would feel like a constrictive maze of red tape, I’ve come to now see it as a productive force. There’s some really great people working there, who have a vested interest in creating a better, more inhabitable city. They’ve become collaborators, in a sense, furthering our office’s civic mission: sometimes, they’re able to convince a client to do something new, something for the city that extends the project’s reach beyond its own function.
Have there been any notable influences on your career?
My youth was largely spent in the architecture section of my local library, which is where I discovered the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Their elegant massing and nuanced play of proportion and material and light have remained steadfast influences in our work. But it’s not just about pulling in influence from elsewhere – you have to look at the context for each site, and let the surrounding buildings, whatever they may be, hold some influence over what you are designing. It’s not about fitting into the existing architecture, it’s about pulling apart that relationship between old and new and then finding the balance between them.
What exciting projects do you have coming up in the new year?
The Moscone Convention Center expansion, a collaboration with SOM, is in its final stages of construction right now. We’re watching the balcony overlooking the adjacent playground take form, and the two bridges that connect the Center across Howard Street come to life. It’s exciting to see these moments where the Center engages with its surroundings fall into place, where soon, people from all over the world can get this sweeping, integrated introduction to San Francisco.