Sutro Baths ruins reimagined as a “Center for the Human Spirit”

Sutro Baths reimagined as a Center for the Human Spirit by Quan Nyen Tran

In 2012, Quan Nyen Tran, a student at the Academy of Art’s Graduate School of Architecture, submitted an entry to the American Institute of Architects Center for Emerging Professionals competition. In it, he re-imagined the ruins of Sutro Baths as a transformational retreat center he calls the “Center for the Human Spirit”.

What’s interesting about Tran’s design is that rather than rebuild on top of the ruins and cover them up, the center wraps around the existing pools, and uses the varied cliffs to tucks in structures and living spaces.

Tran refers to Sutro Baths as “an evocative ruin”, writing, “The evocativeness comes from a sublime coexistence of cliff, ruin and ocean – each a potential site for discovery of the human self and for an evocative architecture to house this discovery.

The center consists of three main spaces – a exhibition space, a meditation space, and a retreat – all with the goal of encouraging its visitors to treat themselves, others and nature with compassion.

The exhibition space features an ampitheater with a connecting tunnel that leads down into a bathhouse that is tucked into the side of the cliff. The meditation center is “cantilevered from an existing ledge, with steps leading down into the ocean, and takes in the view of the infinite horizon”. And finally, the retreat area is nested in the heart of the ruins, with minimal living quarters and a transparent ceiling open to the sky.

The Center for the Human Spirit was also Tran’s Master’s thesis.

“My project was ignited by a vision borrowed from Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and the quote: “Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.””

And while Tran’s re-imagining of our neighborhood relic wasn’t a a finalist in the 2012 AIA CEP ompetition, we think he has a winning idea here.

Thanks to @sutrobaths for the tip.

Sarah B.

Looking out from the Exhibition area. By Quan Nyen Tran

At left, a rendering of the Retreat for the Potential Self. To the right, the Sanctuary for the Transcendental.
By Quan Nyen Tran


  1. Interesting, but given the fact the site is part of GGNRA it’s not likely to ever happen.

    To me, the ruins of Sutro Baths are anything but reflective, tranquil and meditative. Anyone who visits the site knows it’s hammered by wind and wave; a place where people are humbled by the force of nature. I think that’s why people have been drawn to this battered cove for millennia.

    The artist part of me says, ‘Nice looking proposal.’ The historic preservationist says, “Don’t ruin the ruins.”

    -John Martini, author “Sutro’s Glass Palace: The Story of Sutro Baths.”

  2. Echoing what John says, that’s a lot of glass (and clean, rust-free surfaces) right next to the ocean.
    Storms, otters, birds, springs, erosion would soon take their toll.

    If otters or coots or tunnels with hidden caves are your potential self, good place. It already does most of these things as is.

  3. I wish we leave this place alone. Does anyone learn from the past? It was burned down twice. This is like a shrine, a ruin to be discovered by not having it remodernised. I give kudos to the designer, but find another spot.

  4. I’d hate to see something like this built there, as it would immediately limit who gets to experience that lovely location; can you imagine what it would cost to attend the retreat center? The building is an interesting idea, though, and I do like that the baths aren’t covered in the concept. Glad the site is protected as part of the GGNRA.

  5. The proposed building has no purpose has no purpose, other than meditation? I think thee site should stay the way it is and I’m sure the GGNRA will keep it that way.

  6. Wow, so many negative comments. This design isn’t a proposal for an actual project it his Master’s thesis. I think it’s interesting. Well done, Tran!

  7. This should never ever ever happen! Cool enough to see what someone did with it, though.

  8. My sentiments are with John.
    Ben, the errant river otter sited last year notwithstanding, otters (river or sea) haven’t been typically seen around here for a long time. Harbor seals, yeah, but not otters.

  9. It is a good student project. Very crisp, equal to (but more complex than) the EHD&D’s Lands End Lookout (AKA phase 1). Hopefully useful as the germ of an idea and a great career. Yes, the otter was transient (but who knows what the future will bring). One of my favorite, meditative memories was eating a pancake breakfast in Louis’ with “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” playing in the background, and watching Sutro Sam swimming back in forth in the lagoon more or less in sync with the music (and all the birds that usually swam in the lagoon watched nervously from the sidelines).

    For this specific site, this particular universe, wIth the Cliff House opposite, the auditorium and meditative garden are a bit of a fishbowl.Would Louis’ patrons and coin-op telescope users watch people meditating (much as they do now, albeit differently)? Would meditation retreat patrons learn from birdwatching, or sneak out for a meditative breakfast, or coffee and clam chowder at the Lands End Lookout? So many possibilities.

  10. It’s interesting to reflect from hiking in other countries/cultures, that nature and spirituality are much less separated than here – be it pilgrimage routes, or Shinto shrines with banners and candles at particular mountains or springs or vistas; Kami statues with little scarves in winter, or Virgin shrines with flower offerings along the sidewalk. We’ve got a labyrinth or two, and the little niche for offerings along the North Ridge Trail on Mt. Sutro, but structured spirituality is generally speaking resisted by the State/Local/National parks (plain old nature is a good starting place for being aware of things bigger than our troubles and saves opening up more cans of worms as far as whose religious icons go where).

    A few years ago, down in Pinto Lake County Park, outside Watsonville, we came across a Catholic shrine with votive candles, three altars and Mexican paper cutout banners — someone saw a vision of the Virgin Mary by the lakeshore, and the County Park agency (to their credit) let the community/church set up altars, candles, and benches on that spot. We saw LOTS of Latino families in their Sunday best, walking out the trail to pay respects, get blessings, meditate on their troubles, etc. out in the world, in a park otherwise known only for birdwatching and a frisbee golf course. Cool spot.

  11. Such strong emotions! Never do anything seems to be a general theme. This does not appear to be a solicited proposal, but a thesis project. There will be a day when he will be asked to (gasp) actually design a public space. But not to worry, change will never happen in my beloved San Francisco. Of course, an earthquake kinda messed up the Embarcadero that had to be torn down. We sadly had to say good buy to an iconic freeway and learn to adjust to parks, walking paths and a fabulously vibrant part of the city. I was sad to see the tram taken down from the cliff house, but sometimes change is inevitable. Change is not bad as long as it is well designed change. Keep living the dream Quan Nyen Tran!

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