Context-Sensitive Design
What does 'context-sensitive design' really mean? It seems to refer to architecture and urban design that goes out of its way to emulate, mirror, or generally fit in alongside the buildings that surround the site in question. Why did this phrase become so important? To my eye, it emanates from the general public's pessimism regarding the quality of what WILL be built.
Simply put, it's payback for all the stripmalls and nasty stuff built over the last 50 years. And until architects and urban designers prove they can produce new, forward looking buildings and public spaces on a consistent basis, I don't see the importance of the phrase diminishing in the eyes of the general public. They might not be architectural experts, but they know when things get ugly, and as long as they equate 'new' with 'ugly' neo-traditionalism is going to remain de rigeur.
Rendering the Fat
There's an interesting article and slide show in the NY Times about architectural rendering - how the drawings of unbuilt buildings fudge the facts in an attempt to convince a broad range of stakeholders (community organizations, lenders, prospective buyers) that the project is worth pursuing.
I think the piece fails to emphasize the significance of rendering. How even though it is most often thought of as just the link between idea and eventual product, it has a major role in dictating what gets built. The renderer acts as the translator between the architects and the design-ignorant audience, taking many liberties in the process.
Secret Geography
A recent editorial on Planetizen talks about the alleyways of downtown San Francisco, how they make visitors feel like they are blessed with access to an exclusive environment. True enough. The author misses the best point though - that an alley's worth is derived from its surrounding context. Check out the pictures accompanying the story. Each alley is flanked by a skyscraper. It's the ability to dine in intimate, outdoor settings right next door to a 25-story building that makes alleys so valuable as urban hideaways.
Happenstance & General Serendipity
I am an avid reader of the Metropolitan Diary, a weekly column in the NY Times where readers submit anecdotes highlighting the amusing and unpredictable nature of city living. Themes include getting help from strangers, overhearing an uninentionally funny conversation, stumbling across the answer to a long unsolved urban mystery, and general serendipity.
Every week I read these musings and end up nodding my head. In giving keyhole peeks into random interaction, the column touches upon a deeper truth: that the city is constructed of happenstance. Not bricks, not steel, not infrastructure. What holds it all together, in the final auditing of city life, is the brief interaction between strangers, when one person affects the life of the person to their right, whether they know it or not. If we were all to live our lives only dealing with our small circle of known persons, the city would instead be a conglomeration of shtetls and villages all insulated from each other. But the fact that we run into strangers and that they affect our lives in sometimes profound ways makes a city, even one as large as New York, one community. And the fact that people write in to share their stories, to remind the rest of the city that they are all connected whether they want to be or not, strengthens the bond.


The Truman Show?
Up in Portland this last weekend, I had a few thoughts.
First, Portland is so damn cute that I had the urge to grab it by the cheeks and just say, "wookie pookums is such a CUTE wittle city, isn't it?"
Second, the whole city is so wonderfully soothing that I found myself perpetually lost. Every time I arrived at an intersection, I would think to myself, "Aha. Here I am back at that cute intersection again," only to realize quickly that this was yet another cute intersection that I hadn't seen before. It's homogenously wonderful.
Ok, ok, so I only visited Downtown, Pearl District, and the yuppy Northwest, which are hardly representative of the entire city as a whole, but still. I had the nagging feeling that I was Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon without a cloud in the sky, I was surprised how few people there were to be seen around town. I kept thinking that every time I rounded a corner, the entire cast behind me would scramble to assume positions for the next wonderful montage at the next block. Weird, yet not entirely unattractive, I have to say. I find myself daydreaming more and more about having a nice quiet yard with a hammock, something hard to find in San Francisco, but seemingly plentiful and cheap in Portland.
Third, that was my third time visiting Portland. I have never once seen a cloud there. I think their supposed drizzle problem is all a front to keep the rents down. And they are. Way down. Dreamily down.
Fourth, am I the only one who finds it incongruous that there are so many dive bars in Portland with erotic dancers? Is it a relic of the logging industry? It is just such a surprise to wander into a small neighborhood bar and find a dancer and a pole in the corner.


What the WTC Means
There's an interesting article in today's NY Times about what to call the new World Trade Center buildings, and how the name will affect the relationship of the buildings to New York as a whole as well as to the site's past. For once, I find myself agreeing with the developers, who want to number the new towers that spring up from the site starting with the number 7, since the first 6 buildings that were on the site before the bombing don't exist anymore. That rings true to me.
The AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) is hosting a conference to try and re-brand the site with a new name in an attempt to emphasize its rebirth. A bunch of names have been tossed around, from Greenwich Plaza (the local street) to 9/11 Plaza (which seems terribly heavy handed), but it seems like a travesty to give up on the name 'World Trade Center.' James Biber, a partner in the Pentagram design firm, argues that coopting the original name for a new project on the site "pretty much negates being connected back to the city fabric." I find that argument very narrowminded, especially in its definition of 'city fabric.' While naming the new buildings 'World Trade Center' does relink the project to its superblock past, which turned its back on the city's physical fabric, continuing on with the old name is the simplest and most elegant way to connect the project to the city's historical fabric. Especially if they choose to start the numbering where they left off.
In today's urban design climate, the project will almost certainly be woven more successfully into Manhattan's physical fabric - how could it not? - so Mr. Biber's argument seems strange. Why bother severing the site's etymological connection to its past just so you can call it what it so clearly will be anyway? By sticking with the old name, by juxtaposing what used to be the WTC with what it is now, it highlights the differences in design between the two but also reminds visitors that both projects grow from the same ground.
In the end, I'd bet the farm that it's going to be called WTC no matter what it's officially titled. Nobody in San Francisco calls it 3Com park. It's still the 'stick.


Urban Golf
I participated in the Third Bi-Annual Charles Bukowski Urban Golf Invitational last weekend. It was deliciously ridiculous. About sixty-five people showed up in Washington Square in North Beach wearing the ugliest golf clothes they could find, paid $5 for a nerf golf ball, and proceeded in groups of about 8 to putt their way to holes wedged into alleyways in North Beach and Chinatown.
The pattern of the day was simple: Tee off, watch ball feebly roll roughly ten feet. Try again. Repeat anywhere from 4-10 times before realizing it was futile and proceeding to the recommended pit stop (a local pub) for a drink. Every hole had a recommended pit stop. By the fourth hole, it was chaos.
My group’s athletic endeavors were hindered by the fact that someone had brought along his gigantic German Shepherd mutt, Slug. Slug liked chasing balls. He liked to pick them up in his mouth, chew them back and forth gently, and spit them back out, thoroughly soggy. Some courses have water hazards, we had a Slug hazard.
On the fourth hole, I decided that Slug could be used to my advantage. I stood over the tee while he watched hungrily. “Mmmm, tasty tasty nerfiness,” I coaxed. I stomped my foot excitedly and, unable to control his instincts, Slug pounced on the ball. Step one of the devious plan was complete. I started jogging towards the hole. “C’mere, Slug, c’mon!” I shouted, and he followed me over to the hole, chewing slowly, wondering what the game was. I got him to jog with me all the way over to the hole, ball in mouth. Step two complete. All that remained was the grand finale. Slug stood poised over the hole, looking at me curiously. This was a game with which he was unfamiliar.
“Drop the ball, Slug,” I commanded.
He hesitated. He had years of experience at pouncing and devouring, but dropping was not in his repertoire. It was not, shall we say, his forte.
“Drop the ball!” I repeated.
“Please drop the ball?”
By then, it was too late. Another golfer in my group began jogging away from the hole and called for Slug. This was a new game, certainly more exciting than standing over the hole and having me shout meaningless commands at him. Slug sauntered off, still chewing thoughtfully on my golf ball. He finally dropped it a block away. Luckily, I hadn’t taken a shot yet, so my score was still technically zero.

So while I definitely had a good time golfing through North Beach, and absolutely cannot wait for next March’s Urban Iditarod, the real score that I should have kept track of were the double takes people gave us. You have to imagine that on a given day, people in the city are not expecting to take a shortcut down an alley and stumble across golf troupes in costume.
It seems to me that I was unwittingly a piece of a public art exhibit. And that’s the trick, I think: to get people to unwittingly participate in public art. To coax them out of their routine in such a way that their behavior not only causes them to enjoy the day in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, but also makes passersby think twice. Or at least look twice.


Ephemeral and Durable
Two excellent articles in last Sunday's New York Times Arts Section highlighted the differend ends of the infinite/immediate spectrum of city art and expression. This article , by Jason Edward Kaufman, describes the British artist Andy Goldsworthy's project to memorialize the Holocaust on the roof of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. He's quarried 18 granite boulders and is melting a hole through the middle of each one with a special 4,000 degree blowtorch in order to plant dwarf oaks in their middles. The trees will take up to a century to reach their full height of 12 feet - and it's the idea that it will be the grandchildren of the artist's generation that see the project reach maturity that appeals to me. That life can ge anchored in cold hard stone and take years to reach its flowering height, that is a theme that memorializes the rebirth that followed the Holocaust, but also the way the city around us grows. It may feel cold to the touch, but it is fertile underfoot.

The second article , written by Holland Cotter, discusses the pyrotechnical art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses elaborate firework displays to create pieces such as the rainbow bridge that spanned the East River to celebrate the opening of the MoMA's temporary digs in Queens (be sure and check out the pictures of his work on the nytimes website). These pieces shatter the ears, overwhelm the eyes, and are completely antithetical to Goldsworthy's boulder sculpture. They're over in a few seconds, except for the afterimage on your cornea. How is it, then, that both Goldsworthy's terrapin paced memorials and Cai's ephemperal flashes across the sky both elicited the same response from me? Namely, that both works call out the soul of the city.


Open space is fiercely protected in San Francisco, and there is a marked lack of it downtown. On sunny days, workers flock to the few open spaces along Market Street where they can sit in the sun and enjoy their lunch. There are the steps surrounding the MUNI plaza at Montgomery and Market, the top of the Crocker Galleria, Justin Herman Plaza. But it's not enough.
Why isn't there more rooftop access, especially South of Market, where the only open spaces (save South Park) are parking lots with one-way streets on either side? I understand the argument against pulling pedestrians off the street, that the more people you have on a given street (or in any public space, for that matter) the more alive it becomes. But why are the tops of our buildings only used for communication and ventilation equipment?
I ask this not because I propose a master plan of roofdecks across the city - although that would look truly amazing - but because I have an idea that seamlessly combines three of my favorite things: rootbeer floats, minigolf, and urban space design. You laugh, but wait.
What I propose (but cannot afford) is to place a minigolf course and rootbeer float stand on top of one of the many large-footprint, five-story buildings South of Market. Just think of the pleasure on a hot summer day: standing among the skyscrapers, soaking up the sun, snacking on your frothy ice cream float, and playing some minigolf.
Does that not sound like a fantastic addition to the city?


X Marks the Spot
I have this t-shirt company idea. I want to make t-shirts with bay area graphic icons. It all started four years ago when i noticed that the sign behind the MUNI bus drivers reads, "Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unecessary conversation." I thought to myself that it would make a good t-shirt, and for a birthday present, my friend followed through on the idea.
There are a few icons in particular that ought to be memorialized: one on a building at California and Fillmore of a rudimentary, penguin-esque bird that is titled, simply, ‘bird.’ Graffiti with titles always entertains.
Another one, on Valencia and 16th, of an abstracted bunny deserves attention. The bunny wears an expression of shock, perhaps at its own abstraction.
Others are just words. On York street near 24th, on the sidewalk, the message ‘Shårk Just Fresno Kills’ is scrawled in blue spraypaint. I have no idea what it means.
I have also always been partial to the BART hieroglyphics, in particular the black and white images on the emergency evacuation posters in the train. The images explaining how to evacuate a train stuck in the Transbay Tube is wonderfully simple. The evacuees look like Lego people happily wandering around the tracks. The best, though, is the sign that reminds riders to be wary of the gap between the platform and the train. A rudimentary figure hunches over, hands on knees, and peers downward toward the platform. It is clear that he's looking at the gap because a bright yellow beam of light shoots from his eyes, incinerating the gap. ‘Watch the Gap’ the sign says.
In my dream, each of these shirts would have the urban icon on the front and on the back, right behind the collar, would be the location of the image. It would be an urban treasure hunt, celebrating the unheralded landmarks of San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars. I even love the Transbay Pyramid. But in a tourist city like this, it is important for residents to take pride in the everyday beauty that doesn’t get swarmed by tourists all summer long. There needs to be a separate city for the San Franciscans, a place just as wonderful, if not as grandiose.

The Bathroom
I moved to a new apartment on Albion Street in the Mission this month. It’s a good location, right around the corner from the bars, restaurants, and bookshops at Valencia and 16th, but on a quiet, tree-lined street. I can look out my bay window, over the top of a London Plane tree and see Sutro Tower and Twin Peaks. I can climb to the roof, stand on what feels like the hub of the city, and enjoy an exhilarating 360 degree view of San Francisco. Most eye-catching of all, though, is the bathroom.
Ten years ago, a funky artist named Snowflake lived in my apartment. I know his name because he painted a mural in my bathroom and signed it: Snowflake. He’s also the one who painted the murals on the stairway landings, one with a Roman theme, another that is vaguely Inuit, and a third of a herd of buffalo.
The first time I visited the apartment as a prospective renter, the landlady paused before opening the door, looking over her shoulder at me. She wore a slightly pained expression. “There’s a story behind this unit,” she told me. She paused, I think, because the story was the litmus test that would reveal whether I was a good fit for the apartment. She explained that Snowflake had been a close friend who died of AIDS ten years ago. And, as a gesture of memorial, she had decided to keep the mural intact; she would only rent the unit to someone who promised not to deface it. Then she winced a little, turned the doorknob, and showed me the mural.
It’s not subtle. The lower half, from about eye-level down, is painted to resemble a rough-hewn stone wall. Above that, however, is the main body of the mural: a black background and rust red, Roman style figures. There are satyrs with horns and animal legs, toga clad men, and armored gladiators. Some stand in pairs or in threes, others stand alone. They are life size. They are, I must admit, well painted. And they are all exposing themselves. Every single one of them. They seem happy about it, too, if you follow me.
It is an interesting place to take a shower. I feel like I’ve moved into an unheralded San Francisco landmark.

* * * * *

Down on the street, a few houses down from my apartment, right where Camp Street meets Albion, is a plaque commemorating an event some 200 years before I moved in. That intersection, tucked away in the middle of the city block, is where the de Anza expedition, led at this point by Lieutenant José Moraga, erected the first structures in what was to become San Francisco in June of 1776, just days before the Declaration of Independence was signed. They built temporary homes on the shore laguna de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, the Lake of the Virgin’s Sorrows, and began construction of the mission.
About 200 years before that, Sir Francis Drake anchored his ship, the Golden Hind, in a foggy, cliff bound cove near present day San Francisco. Deciding it reminded him of England – in that strange way that homesickness can make everything remind you of home – he claimed the land for the queen, naming it Nova Albion, or New England (‘albion’, literally ‘white’ in Latin). The name didn’t stick, but remains vestigially posted on my street corner.
All these things, they seem to happen in one place.
It’s safe to assume that there’s no way Sir Francis Drake could have imagined San Francisco as it stands today, with SFO, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the TransAmerica Pyramid. But I’m sure he gave thought to what this land might become. It’s also a safe bet that Moraga, as he built his primitive home by the shore of the lake where I now live, could not possibly have imagined the way his tiny settlement would have turned out architecturally, with block after block of homes in the Richmond and Outer Sunset conquering what once were dunes as far as the eye could see. Nobody can imagine that much of the future. It is simply beyond imagination.
But much further beyond the realm of possible imagination, tucked away under the category of ‘things even the most creative of people could not dream up,’ lies my bathroom, the hidden monument to the wonderfully unpredictable path of urban growth. I’m proud to call it mine, at least for now.

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