Swallowtail Community Prototype

Ming Thompson, AIA; Christina Yoo, AIA

Swallowtail is a pavilion designed by and for the people of the Central Market neighborhood of San Francisco, offering a serene community space in the city.

Through an in-depth process of workshops, design think tanks, and engagement with local organizations, Atelier Cho Thompson designed a flexible community pavilion for the Central Market area of San Francisco. Central Market is a dynamic and rich neighborhood, but it suffers from long-term problems of homelessness, poverty, and crime. Central Market is truly a resilient community, fighting to improve its environment and preserve its culture in a changing city.

Working closely with a dozen community groups engaged in arts, safety, and service, we designed a pavilion to serve the needs of the neighborhood. Erected for the Market Street Prototyping Festival, the pavilion will be permanently installed in a public community park. Through four Idea Labs, which included discussions and walking tours, the community groups provided valuable, street-level knowledge about the ecosystem of Central Market. Their comments about existing challenges and opportunities are based on their intimate knowledge of the area's physical, social and cultural landscape, and shaped our shared idea for a community-based prototype entitled "Swallowtail."

The pavilion is inspired by the Western tiger swallowtail habitat found along Market Street, where the butterfly coexists within the urban hustle and bustle. These butterflies typically inhabit river-canyon ecosystems of the Western US, and are drawn here because the tall buildings create a canyon, and the street commotion mimics a river. New developments along Market make an extensive effort to preserve this habitat, including protection of the London plane trees, inclusion of nectar sources, and reduction of building shadows. This prototype is an allegory for how any future development must similarly honor and respect the people and organizations of Central Market.

Rather than asking for a pavilion with specific and limited programming, the community asked for a space that could flexibly accommodate many types of activities. Through extensive interviews, we found that the neighborhood needed a serene resting place, free and open to the public. Swallowtail is a simple form, constructed of local redwood, made up of corner counters, plants to attract butterflies, movable stools, and a canopy overhead. The canopy is threaded with rope reminiscent of the gossamer wings of the butterfly. The Swallowtail was used to host a myriad of events, including print-making workshops, spoken word poetry, and voter registration. Crowds of people used the structure to sit, eat, talk, dance, and spend time in the neighborhood. We aimed to capture the rich narratives of the many people who live and work here. During the festival, we asked visitors to share their dreams for the future of Central Market; after writing these statements on butterfly-shaped notepaper, these letters were attached to the string canopy. By the end of the Festival, hundreds of notes fluttered in the wind overhead.

Central Market is a dynamic neighborhood, with incredible organizations and attractions, but many visitors have no idea of the richness of the community. Working with the community groups, we assembled a map pointing to places in the neighborhood, and each counter features bold graphics with information and directions to educate visitors.

Image credits


Ming Thompson, AIA; Christina Yoo, AIA