San Francisco is privileged to have a number of excellent architectural guides – ones by Sally Woodbridge, Mitchell Schwarzer, David Gebhard, and Richard Saul Wurman come immediately to mind, and all excellent in their own rights. These are joined by monographs and topical architectural analyses galore – plus Vision of a Place, the SPUR book I participated in that analyzes the DNA of San Francisco and the logic of the San Francisco General plan.
Today we are fortunate to have a brand new guide – Cityscapes, San Francisco and Its Buildings – by John King, Urban Design Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here we have an architectural analysis as quirky as San Francisco and its architecture, and I revel in it. Because quirky and higgledy piggeldy are some of the things that make San Francisco so charming. I remember when I. M. Pei and his team came to San Francisco with their mid-1980s plan for Mission Bay and showed slides of their images of the San Francisco – the mission revival homogeneity of the Marina District and the Parisian sweep of Dolores Boulevard with its broad landscaped median – and pronounced the beauty of the city to be in coordinated, programmed, planned master planning and design. Wrong!
John King gets that, and as a non-architect, probably better than most of us trained in the profession. Which is not to say there isn’t a method to San Francisco’s and Cityscapes madness. “…you’ll see that San Francisco’s allure isn’t a fluke of setting and climate, or the cumulative effect of people you encounter in cafés. It is a faceted tapestry that extends across neighborhoods, districts, and blocks. The new jostles the old, the tall frames the short, and the elaborate is made more striking by the proximity of the plain. The most luminous strands of the weave radiate a confidence that is neither meek nor glib. They share a sensibility more than a style, and they suit the city well.”
Fifty examples are divided into four categories – Icons, Styles and Masters, Landscape, and Change – all in the service of demonstrating, as John says, “…that the landscape becomes more intriguing with the ongoing accumulation of layers.” Something that NIMBY neighbors, and for that matter, some at the Planning Department could learn from. A few years ago the Department issued new urban design guidelines for residential neighborhoods proclaiming things like “San Francisco house are vertical in form” and new residential buildings should echo this verticality. Huh? Maybe a Stick Victorian is vertical, but my “Marina Style” building is decidedly horizontal, and some of both are in the same block and they get along just fine, thank you.
Even John’s “Icons” leave out most of the usual suspects. No Palace of Fine Arts or City Hall here. Although there are such recognized beauties as the Flood Building and the Conservatory of Flowers, there is also the Lakeside Medical Center, a 1940s mélange of suburban colonial and streamlined moderne that adds distinction to the use, the important site, and the neighborhood shopping center it anchors. Something a true “Architecture Critic” with a capital “A” would disdain but an urban design critic recognizes for its place in the urban fabric.
“Styles and Masters” finds values in some true masterpieces such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Maiden Lane shop and Eric Mendelsohn’s Presidio Heights house, but also finds value in the small (that 3 story International Style wonder across from St. Mary’s Square), the quirky (a finely crafted bastard tudor in Forest Hill) and a tiny post modern condo complex in the Richmond as jumbled as the best parts of Telegraph Hill.
“Landscape” isn’t trees and plants but rather the “weave”, the “cumulative character” of buildings and spaces that make up a city. Here we find some genuinely great buildings and some other merely “interesting” buildings, but it is not their pure architectural character he is highlighting but their place making, the way they fit into the warp and woof of the city. Finally he presents “Change” as something we should “savor, not resent or ignore.”
Together there are may lessons for the ever-present NIMBYs who are stuck in some disneylandesque vision of a city that never was; who think only old is good, that anything built since 1930 is heresy; who see modernity as soulless; that some version of “contextualism”, where every building disappears into a mind-numbing sameness, is beauty. San Francisco’s urban dynamism comes from just the opposite – its topography that is absurd for a city, its mélange of building heights and styles and forms and colors, the mix of corner stores and yes, auto mechanic shops in residential neighborhoods; of once-cheap apartments side by side with always expensive mini-manses – a crazy-quilt that explodes in a riot of fun.
I hope this book makes it past the usual readers and usual venues like the AIA and SPUR (Tuesday, May 31, 6 pm). This book needs to be read by neighborhood activists, the protectors of our urban design, and by ordinary folks who love the city, but given the chance would squeeze the vitality out of it, who think it’s the Pickling Department not the Planning Department. This is a book for all who love San Francisco; for those who understand urbanity and what makes a city great; and for those who don’t but who could learn.
The title of this article, Touchstones of Reference and Recall, is taken from the Introduction to the book.