It has oft been said that San Francisco has some of the best architects in the world but that their best work is elsewhere. I think that tends to be true. As a City, we have empowered virtually any single person to stop anything. Thus everyone in the chain, the owner/developer, the financier, the architect, the attorney, the planner at the Planning Department, and the Planning Commission, at some point, come to the question: just what is it going to take to get this built? How are we going to mollify the screaming neighbors who are protesting? And the answer is often the lowest common denominator. Dumb it down.
Now a fear of change is a natural human reaction, unfortunately. At some level, many of us have probably been there. But having attended scores if not hundreds of public meetings over the decades, and reading the various real estate blogs covering new development in San Francisco, there are a couple of other things…
- The general public has no idea about design. Let me say that again. The general public has no idea about design. They just know that anything “modern” is bad and anything “Victorian” is what we want. The only trouble is, most people don’t know modern from Victorian. A flat roof: bad. That means modern. But don’t most Victorians in SF have flat roofs? Geegaws on the façade: good. Doesn’t matter if the building has 8 foot ceilings and none of the proportions of a Victorian, but people ooh and aah how beautiful it is. All while architects are wincing how ridiculous it looks.
- The neighbors who got there first somehow have say over newcomers. Where this comes from I can’t imagine. Most of us came to San Francisco as adults. Most Americans change houses every few years, although Prop 13 tempers that in California. But where do the neighbors get off trying to stop a neighbor from building the same thing as the surrounding houses? Even proposed houses lower and shallower than the existing neighbors get dinged. And why would the City even listen?
- What are you going to do for the existing neighbors? Someone comes in to build a new house or houses, and they have an obligation to provide favors to the existing neighbors? Huh?
- But it will cause noise and dust during construction. And your house didn’t?
- It’s not contextual. Someone might notice your house. It’s got to look as boring as my spec built house or I won’t allow it in my neighborhood. Which brings us back to, no architecture allowed.
It has gotten better than it was thirty-five years ago when I moved to San Francisco. That was the period of fear over “Manhattanization.” Not only was anything new anathema, anything over 40 feet high was to be feared like the Russians. Today, fortunately, the young creative class who are populating San Francisco came here since it has been a city, love rather than fear cities, and here are precisely because it is a city. And they don’t fear the Russians either!
Also, in what I think of as the “DeYoung Effect,” it’s ok to have modern buildings (just so long as they are not in “a neighborhood.”) When the Herzog and De Meuron design for the DeYoung was revealed, there were dozens of public hearings where scores of people who had never taken Art Appreciation 1A wasted hundreds of hours of public officials’ time railing against the design. But the DeYoung hung tough, organized a coterie of the informed, and the City did the right thing. Funny, since it opened, there has hardly been a peep against it. A modern building did get built in Golden Gate Park, and the world did not end. And the Renzo Piano design of the California Academy across the Concourse sailed through with nary a peep. Today, tens of thousands of San Francisco school children visit and learn to love the Academy, and not incidentally modern architecture, just as their parents loved the neoclassical pastiche that preceded it.
I was astounded and pleased to see a recent elegant, modern glass façade design by Craig Steely under construction in Dolores Heights. This in a part of town where the neighbors have been known to break out the pitch forks over the color of a neighbor’s front door. Something has definitely changed.
What are the lessons, if any? I have to say, go for the best architecture. Take the high road. Organize proponents of good design. Support art education in the public schools. Support the AIA and its Architecture and the City Festival. Publish. Publish. Publish. Write for UrbDeZine and post your articles everywhere you can think of. Especially places that the general public will read. The internet and all the websites on our iPhones are a great boon to general education. No longer do architects have to go through the gauntlet of the proper publishing house. Yes, any dope has access to the web as an outlet for uninformed diatribes, but so do design professionals.
As a public design professional, I have to believe in the wisdom of the informed public. It is up to us to help inform them. There is a new population in San Francisco. They want the best technology. They want a city that is fun. Modern. Hip. Progressive. They want exciting architecture. They recognize the NIMBY movement for what it really is. Conservative. Backward looking. Old. Boring. Their grandparents’ city.
And I have to believe that success breeds success. The more great modern architecture people experience, the more they will demand it.