First Bank Branch - Chinatown, San Francisco, CA

The San Francisco Chinatown branch bank is in what used to be a small grocery storefront at the heart of this vibrant, bustling ethnic community and tourist destination. The size and configuration of available space pose a number of challenges. Foremost among these, the single entry / exit limits occupancy to fifty, resulting in more offices along the bank lobby than would otherwise be desired. Additionally, the bank’s established safe deposit volume requires building a large vault with significant structural reinforcing in what was the cramped, rear freezer area of the market. Working around existing beams, columns and low ceilings, new half-inch solid steel plating forms the secure barrier of the vault.

The two lease spaces being combined to form the new bank are also on slightly different levels due to sloping Grant Avenue. Fortunately, the south floor level is able to be raised to match the north. The back rooms of the bank remain on a lower level, accessible by ramp.

A requirement of the interior is that it be designed consistent with the principles of Feng Shui, or harmonious relationship to the environment. The main results are a meandering, stream-like circulation flow, imposition of curved soffits, countertops and columns, and a distinctive goldfish tank as the centerpiece of the layout. Colors and materials have also been selected which connote the traditional Chinese symbolism of wealth, good fortune and prosperity.

Ceiling materials and forms and lighting have been chosen to counterbalance relatively low available headroom. The narrow lobby and dominant north wall are enhanced by a sculptural series of counters that fulfill the functional requirements of planter, waiting bench, and check podium.

The goal with the exterior design is to create an edifice projecting strength, consistency and presence within an inherently disparate, chaotic context. This is achieved by a combination of maximizing views into the colorful, coherent interior, defining the extent of the bank space with a continuous awning, and placing signage and graphics strategically. The awning is representative of the level of custom detailing and design required for the entire bank. It is playful, colorful, supported by unique, Chinese-modern figural brackets, and built with a tearaway fire escape panel.

It is hoped that the bank will be both a harmonious neighbor and a distinctive destination in this colorful setting for many years.