David Baker Architects on the Mission's La Fénix at… | Fireclay Tile

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La Fénix at 1950 by David Baker Architects

By Jude Garcia

La Fénix at 1950 by David Baker Architects

It's National Hispanic Heritage Month and we're celebrating the contributions Hispanic and Latino heritage has made to our culture in the United States. While we often look to the past to recall events and individuals, Hispanic heritage is unfolding vibrantly as we speak, helping to shape our future as a multicultural society. We sat down with Caroline Souza and Erin Feeney of David Baker Architects whose recent collaboration with Fireclay, La Fénix at 1950, is an inspiring homage to San Francisco's Mission District, bringing affordable housing and a civic anchor to this historic Latino neighborhood.

FCT: Tell us a bit about David Baker Architects!

DBA: We are a forward-thinking architecture and urban design firm located in San Francisco, Oakland, and Birmingham, Alabama. We are known for exceptional housing, creative site strategies, designing for density, and integrating new construction into the public realm.

What is your approach to architecture?

We design thoughtful places that allow communities to thrive and that serve as a "multiplier of good"—that is, that enable and support engagement, connection, and other neighborhood benefits.

DBA La Fenix rendering

Concept art of La Fenix at 1950 // Image: David Baker Architects

We are a collaborative and quirky firm, and we strive for dignified, generous, and people-oriented architecture that helps foster human thriving for individuals and families, provides great places to live, and makes neighborhoods and cities better.

How did you get involved with the La Fénix at 1950 project?

We competed for the project with two incredible organizations—Mission Housing Development Corporation, which was at the beginning of what has become a renaissance of their work in the Mission District of San Francisco, and BRIDGE Housing, a storied nonprofit housing developer.

DBA La Fenix rendering

Rendering of La Fenix at 1950 Exterior // Image: David Baker Architects

The Mission needs lots of new affordable homes, so when our team figured out how to add more apartments than everybody else, we won the job. We were ecstatic to get to design affordable homes in the heart of one of the most high-impact sites in the city.

What did you find most special about working in the Mission District?

The Mission District has a very distinct culture drawn from Latino, Chicano, and Central American heritage. It has a rich history, diversity of people, vibrant streetscape, political energy, and conflict—along with an atmosphere of music, food, and art. So working in this neighborhood requires both thoughtful navigation and celebration of that cultural heritage.

What inspired your design for La Fénix at 1950 as it relates to the culture and heritage of the Mission District?

Throughout the Mission, there is a lot of street art—murals and graffiti in alleyways, restaurants, storefronts—that inspired the Paseo de Artistas, which is a pedestrian passage that cuts through the block and is lined with affordable artist studios and an art retail space. We hope the artists and residents continue the spirit of the art alleys in the Paseo and really make it their own.

Mission Street Art Inspiration

Paseo de Artistas Street Art Inspiration // Image: David Baker Architects

We also drew on "papel picado," a traditional cut-paper art form that symbolizes celebration, for the perforated metal elements like the screens, awnings, and gates. Papel picado is all over the Mission District—hanging in windows, doorways, and shops—so we wanted to reference that in a functional way.

What challenges does the Mission District face today?

The Mission has a challenging history that continues today. There has long been a problem with housing affordability and homelessness. As the community experiences gentrification, the identity of the neighborhood begins to change and the cultural ties are at risk of fraying. The area was also devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the local businesses were affected.

La Fenix 1950 Project aerial view

Exterior of La Fenix at 1950 // Image: David Baker Architects

What are you hoping to bring to the community with the La Fénix at 1950?

The voice of the community was really clear that this project needed to be about more than just housing—that there was so much history on the site, that it should provide spaces for local businesses, for people to raise their families, an anchor, and a way for people to stay part of the Mission District. Beyond any specific architectural element of the project, the big picture goal was that this building had to perform more of a civic function for the Mission.

La Fenix at 1950 by David Baker Architects

La Fenix at 1950 Courtyard // Image: David Baker Architects

The affordable housing at La Fénix was the result of years of community activism and support, so it was important that the design be an iconic source of pride for the neighborhood.

What is your favorite thing about La Fénix at 1950?

We love that it’s pink. When we were in design, we did an exploratory journey through the Mission to find inspiration, and we kept coming across really vibrant shades of pink—from bougainvillea blossoms to street art to piñatas—so we worked with Fireclay Tile to develop a custom blend of Mexicali Rose tile that reflected the neighborhood.

La Fenix 1950 Project Custom Blend Test

3x12 Tile in a Custom Glaze for La Fenix at 1950 // Image: David Baker Architects

For a look like this, try 3x12 Tiles in Caribbean, Peacock, Slate Blue, Sorbet, and Ember.

There is also a real diversity of programs with an amazing set of community services—a childcare center, art alley, community space, neighborhood-serving retail, management offices. It was fun to work through how to express those different uses architecturally, especially along Mission Street. The Mission is a neighborhood of little mom-and-pop shops and fine-grained urban street fronts, so having over 200 feet of frontage to design could feel out of scale. But the way that we broke that down and used tile and massing to set some rhythm helps it blend in with the neighborhood.

We have to ask...How was working with Fireclay Tile?

We had so much fun working with Fireclay Tile! Turns out the Mexicali Rose shade that we wanted didn’t exist in a UV-stable glaze. But Fireclay did so many rounds of tests with us to help us find the right mix to get the vibrancy we were looking for—and they brought us Mexican pastries that were color-coordinated with our tile, which was so fun!

La Fenix 1950 Project Custom Blend Test

Pink Custom Glaze for La Fenix at 1950 Project // Image: David Baker Architects

Custom Glazes for La Fenix at 1950 Project // Image: David Baker Architects

We also did several rounds of tests to find the right mix of blues. Fireclay always showed up enthusiastically, ready to share the new color pass. And we had a custom size tile that Fireclay helped us with.

Click here to learn more about our Custom Capabilities!

What is it about tile in design that you can't get enough of?

We chose tile because it provided an opportunity to bring in color and a finer grain scale and texture than other cladding materials. But also because it’s really durable—it doesn’t fade, it’s easy to clean, graffiti- and water-resistant.

La Fenix 1950 Project Custom Blend

3x12 Pink Custom Glaze for La Fenix at 1950 Project // Image: David Baker Architects

In addition to that, it was contextual to the Mission. There are a lot of examples of colorful tile in the neighborhood on storefronts and sidewalk paving, so while the tile is really bright, it also fits right in.

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We're honored to partner with David Baker Architects on the La Fénix at 1950 and celebrate the ever-evolving contributions the Hispanic and Latino communities have given to our country's cultural fabric. Check out La Fénix at 1880 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (just 1.2 miles from our San Francisco Showroom!).

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