The Biggest Christmas Ever
Go to 21st Street between Church and Sanchez. One of the houses there has the largest Christmas display I've ever seen. It includes a 50' tree, about 100 wrapped gifts big enough to hold large children, a live Santa, a roller-coaster train display, two immense stockings, wreaths, etc., etc. They put it up every year for the benefit of the neighborhood.
Walking by, we saw a parade of cars, all with little children in the back seats, slowly driving by. Big eyes on little faces in the windows, oohing and aahing.
It is delightfully American, larger than life. It is Santa moves to Vegas. Go see it.


Things That Go Bump in the Night
I used to be able to navigate my house in the pitch dark. Back in high school, when I would come home late at night and not want to wake up my parents, I could walk in the kitchen door, through the dining room, down the doglegged hall, up the stairs and straight into my bedroom without a single stumble. Eyes closed.
But that house is long gone. My parents moved out to San Francisco, and even if I found myself back in Sudbury, Massachusetts, the house would have furniture in different places.
My parents have lived in their new condo for a year now, but still, my mom says, she bumps into things at night.
What is there about knowing a place by heart that implies a deeper connection with the place?
My first response is that to have the layout of a a place memorized, you must have been there long enough to produce other memories. But is it also possible that having a place 'programmed' into your brain has more profound meaning? Much like musicians are not actually thinking of the notes as they play them (nor do they have them memorized - it is somewhere in between), are we experiencing a place on a different level of consciousness when we have enough knowledge of it to navigate in the dark?
Is this what it means to have a relationship with a place?


Strike up the Bland
Sometimes a building's exterior matches it's inner working so effectively it is as if the skin is a reflection of the guts. The Guggenheim, for example. But I have an example of something from the opposite end of the spectrum: The Valencia, a new mixed-use building on the southeast corner of Valencia and 17th Street. On paper, it's not so bad at all. Ground floor liner retail with windows along Valencia Street hiding parking behind, an interior courtyard, and high density housing. Basically, it's good stuff, exactly the kind of development that San Francisco's urban planners have been clamoring for.
But it all falls apart in the details. Or, rather, in the detailing. Surrounded by intricately decorated Victorians and small storefronts, The Valencia fails at street level. (look at the picture) It's not so much egregious or tasteless as it is bland. Which is to say that it's in stark contrast to everything else on the painfully hip and visually stimulating Valencia Corridor. The entire street level facade of this building is monochromatic and trim of any kind. The corner retail spot is occupied by T-Mobile, which is a tenant match made in heaven for a bland building. But stunningly, right next door is the new digs of San Francisco's own Good Vibrations, the "sexual health and pleasure" shop. Entering their new storefront from Valencia is confusing. I did a double take. "This is Good Vibrations?" I asked myself, turning around to check the sign on the door. It's about as bewildering as walking into the DMV and seeing a shelf of bongs. The lighting is lousy, the walls are drab, the carpet is flat, yet you're surrounded by vibrators, dildos, porn videos, and strawberry-flavored nipple gels. If I were a robot, I would have started shooting sparks out of my head and mumbling, "Does not compute. Does not compute."
Part of the problem, certainly, is that to achieve the goal of higher density housing, larger buildings are often the only financially feasible alternative. Along Market Street or elsewhere downtown, this might not be such a problem. Much larger buildings are more than acceptable. But placing a larger building in a neighborhood characterized by small storefronts is a real challenge. Architects are forced to use facade variation techniques that often fail, such as BAR Architect's Hayes Valley affordable housing development on Hayes & Webster Streets, which has attached stock homes painted slightly different colors in order to differentiate themselves. I don't mean to pick on BAR Architects. It's a tough challenge. One that hasn't been solved to my satisfaction yet. Another example of a massive building, also a loft development, that weighs heavily on its block is the Bella Vista Lofts at 22nd Street and Harrison. It's just too heavy and the design doesn't break up the pieces well enough.
Yet still, The Valencia does accomplish so many of the goals that planners and designers in San Francisco are screaming for: mixed use, high density housing. It's amazing that just by neglecting the finishing touches, the project falls so far short of the standards set by it's surroundings.


Wandering around the city yesterday after jury duty, I stopped by Stacey's books on Market Street and found a copy of Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City by Diana Stuart. The layout of the book is a little disappointing in that the pictures are black and white and on poor quality paper, but realizing that manhole covers, the ultimate utilitarian streetscape object, can be beautiful (and some of them in the book are decidedly ornate) is a good freebie. Who knew that they were worth paying attention to on urban walks? The moral, I suppose, is that everything is worth paying attention to.

Talking to a friend this weekend about names, about how my girlfriend goes by her middle name and how I didn't find out until after I'd known her for awhile. Why is it that when you find out someone isn't going by their real name, you feel vaguely wary of them, like they're actually in the WPP or on the lam? I stood there looking at her with my head cocked to the side, squinting my eyes a little and repeated her "real" name. Like there was some piece of her personality that could not be known until her full name was spoken. It's a hidden door.
The same goes for places, streetnames, mountains. You find out the street you used to live on had it's name changed fifty years ago and suddenly you're walking down the sidewalk looking for hidden doorways to it's painted-over past.


Vanishing Point
There's a really poignant article in the NY Times about Superior, Nebraska, a vanishing midwestern town struggling to attract anyone under the age of 65 and on the brink of extinction. The residents have gone way out of their way to attract business and residents, installing fiberoptic lines, rezoning areas to industrial use, building an office park on spec using state funds, but it looks like it's all for naught. Which begs the question: how do you give a dying town critical mass?
My old roommate, Jon, had some Fiestaware. This was surprising because in every other way, our place was a complete bachelor pad. But guests would come over and be surprised that our dining set was so hip. I never quite understood the allure.
Talking with my friend Jess last night, I finally had it explained to me. Besides being remarkably durable, Fiestaware releases three new colors every year and simultaneously ceases to produce three colors, so that they have a rotating availablity. All pieces are the same in shape and design. Color is the variable. So when you do manage to shatter a saucer, you can replace it with one of a new color. Eventually, depending on the rate of your clumsiness, you'll have an entire mismatched set - which is exactly the goal for some.
Jess and I both agreed that this is the key to good mass produced urban architecture: the play of constant themes across variation.

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