The San Francisco Bay Calls at Oakland’s Jack London Square

The San Francisco Bay Calls at Oakland’s Jack London Square

An unpredictable pattern of concrete pavers at the water’s edge in Oakland, California, echo the dynamic, up-and-down life of Jack London (1876-1916), writer of eight books including the classic wolf story, Call of the Wild. Consisting of nine colors, the pavement reveals waves from the San Francisco Bay, a center of Jack London’s life. The public square named after him is also the site of a curious, old, tiny bar called the First and Last Chance Saloon where he drank and traded stories with those who navigated the seas. Some course corrections are needed for those who navigate the bar interior. Unlike concrete pavers outside, the bar floor slopes due to subsidence from the 1906 earthquake.

A native of San Francisco and an Oakland resident, the sea drew Jack London to boating and pirating oysters from the bay as teenager. His travels took him to Alaska’s Klondike gold rush and eventually across the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to sail around the world. The ocean waves at Jack London Square in concrete pavers are a fitting tribute to a writer who loved the sea and pushed his love life, drinking, travel adventures, finances, and socialist politics to the limit. Today, Jack London Square is vibrant growing mix of retail, hotel, housing, restaurants, and night-spots. The mix of uses has taken years to assemble and now forms an impressive side of the San Francisco Bay. Even his 1897 Alaskan log cabin was moved to the square and can be visited today.

Concrete pavers are no strangers to the area. Over 15 years ago, tens of thousands of square feet were installed as part of early revitalization efforts for the square. The wave patterns were placed about two years ago to highlight the marina and a new fountain. The Port of Oakland, the square’s owner, commissioned GKO & Associates who commissioned the project landscape architecture firm, Adrienne Wong & Associates, to do the landscape architectural design. Adrienne Wong & Associates, with offices in San Francisco and Oakland, were given a free hand in deciding on the design using interlocking pavers. Project designers from the firm were Adrienne Wong, Daniel Foudini, and Martin Wong. With a generous budget of $8.00 per square foot ($86/m2), they decided on concrete pavers.

According to Ms. Wong, there was a need to keep paving materials consistent by continuing the use of concrete pavers from 15 years ago. Even today, the fill soils along the bay’s edge settle. Another reason for using concrete pavers is that they can be easily removed and reinstated after settlement, and they won’t suffer cracking like monolithic paving materials. Clay brick pavers were considered and declined because the cost of masons would drive the project’s price outside the budget.

Inspiration from Three Sources 

The resulting design in concrete pavers was inspired by three sources of similar kinds of paver projects. First were the super graphics with pavers at the Copacabana beach resort in Brazil. Designed by the internationally famous Brazilian landscape architect, Burle Marx, Copacabana informed his massive paver graphics on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, Florida, as covered in the May 1997 issue of this magazine.

The second source of inspiration came from a wave pattern on a marina in New Orleans. The idea behind the picture jumped from the literature supplied by the ICPI member whose pavers were used in the square. The third avenue of inspiration was concrete pavers in front of Toronto’s National Trade Centre designed by art professor Jerry Clapsaddle who has designed several projects with paver patterns in public places.

Supplying the Artist’s Pallet with Paver Pallets

Since the site is the departure point for Jack London’s gold prospecting trip to the Alaskan Klondike, a reference to waves along a beach near the area build on the imagery of Jack London’s life and home. Ms. Wong used a low, curving segmental retaining wall in the brown color of the ocean bluffs near the site. Visitors can sit on the wall and watch the waves. Green pavers were used to mark them and a sprinkling of white units show the foam, receding and remaining on the beach after each wave. The black units delineate the edge of each wave whose forms vary randomly in size as they do in nature.

Color drawings depicting the waves were used as plans and for construction estimates. Since the visual result desired was an impressionistic painting, an ICPI member contractor was called upon to be the artist’s brush. Like all paintings, the canvas for this project was prepared with a base coat. In this case it was compacted aggregate base placed under an inch (25 mm) of bedding sand.

The painting with concrete pavers began with a mock-up of two waves. Directed by Ms. Wong, pallets of nine pavers supplied the color pallet. Like painting on a canvas, paver installation progressed with numerous trial combinations of pavers, lifting and resetting various colors, until a satisfactory effect was achieved.

Since the three-month project consisted of a series of trial installations and recon- figurations, the exact amount of each color of concrete pavers needed was not known. When half of the 31,000 sf (3,100 m2) project was placed, the remaining colors were estimated based on those used on the first half of the painting and they were ordered from the supplier. About 10% more spare pavers were ordered and placed in storage for maintenance.

The new area in concrete pavers is the focal point and public epicenter of the Square’s life. A farmer’s market appears there weekly. As on all public places, the market’s activities bring spills and stains. For that reason, the pavers were sealed to make stain removal easier. Twice a year, there are boat shows, one featuring sailboats, and the other motored craft. In addition, there antique shows, homebuilder’s exhibits, and assorted gatherings of musicians and street entertainers. The square with pavers, fountain, his gold rush residence, and the tiny, wacky bar are reminders to tourists and residents of wilder times, and an author who lived them.