28 March 2010

Sensing the fabric

What made you aware of the impact that development has on what surrounds it? A reader of my recent op-ed piece on 555 Washington asked me this. I replied that my time-lapse sense of Tokyo, which I've visited every few years since 1989, might be one root of it, but I thought later that walking with my father to our hotel on St. James Place in London in early 1953, seeing the missing teeth on that block that reflected the German's wartime bombing of the city, gave me an early sense of what constitutes fabric.

The pattern persists up to a point, as St. James Place revealed. Urban renewal and its successor, the consolidation of smaller sites to facilitate larger-scale redevelopment, supplant the fabric. They often wrench the present from all connection with the past as a repository of local acts over time. This is why redevelopment can be so destructive.

In Tokyo, I was struck by how good the fabric was, and how little the locals understood what they had, even as they were losing it left and right. I'm not opposed to higher-density redevelopment, but it so rarely shows any real imagination or the slightest interest in regaining, at a new scale, the salient features of what was there before. Perhaps this is impossible, but it would be interesting, not to say responsible, to make the attempt or, if it really can't be done, to limit the damage by putting most of the existing fabric out of bounds.

24 March 2010

SF's central subway

Howard Wong, a fellow member of SPUR's project review committee, sent me an email today about the proposed central subway, which would run up 4th Street, linking the CalTrain Station at King Street in Mission Bay with Market Street, Chinatown, and North Beach. He included a handout quoting Allan Jacobs (emeritus urban design professor at U.C. Berkeley and former SF planning director) warning that new stations in the latter two areas would spur redevelopment that would change them beyond recognition. I haven't studied the issue, but it looks like another reason to do a new plan now for SF's urban core and the districts that adjoin it.

21 March 2010


Interestingly, an image of the 555 Washington Tower showed up on the front page of the Bay Area section of the Chronicle today (22 March 2010), with a quote from one of San Francisco's dissident planning commissioners to the effect that the building will be "a death trap for birds." The image reminded me again how derivative the tower is. In plan, though, it rises from a square shape before becoming conical - something that the drawings don't show very well. I wonder how it will actually look at street level. My opposition is not to the tower's design, however, but to its potential implications. Even if Renzo Piano were designing the building, at this scale it would put the same pressure on the district to the north. That district is essentially unprotected now, since everything is being decided case-by-case. Until that stops and there's a new plan that can guide the destiny of the area for another generation, it's "up for grabs," as John King noted.

18 March 2010

555 Washington

I went to my first SF Planning Commission hearing today, spending three hours listening to the commissioners debate the 555 Washington EIR. In the end, they certified the EIR, with only three votes against. It was my sense early on that the vote was in even before the meeting started. There are several shills among the commissioners, along with others who are clearly principled, intelligent, and hardworking. Those others must be intensely frustrated. Consideration of the project proper was continued to 15 April, owing to a glitch in the public noticing. My sense is that the deal's been done, unless one more vote can be found. SPUR was MIA and John King, who weighed in months ago, was silent. I hope he finds his voice before the next hearing, or this thing will be entitled.

17 March 2010

Viral, baby!

When my op-ed piece on the 555 Washington Tower in SF was picked up - with commentary - by CurbedSF, a friend wrote "You've gone viral, baby!" I sent it to ArchNewsNow and Planetizen when it appeared, but it showed up spontaneously elsewhere (including archBoston.org's bulletin board). SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin called me on Tuesday, asking if he could reprint the piece and distribute it in his district. (I referred him to Sam Lubell, editor of the CA edition of Architect's Newpaper.) The SF Planning Commission will take up the 555 Washington Tower again tomorrow (18 March 2010) at 11 a.m. (Rm. 400, City Hall).

16 March 2010

Op-ed in A/N

Architect's Newspaper just ran an op-ed I wrote about the 555 Washington Tower in San Francisco.

13 March 2010

Off to Seoul

I've been working on two Gensler monographs in concert with the designers Mark Jones and Peiti Chia. (Also on the team are Mark Coleman, creative director, Katya Black, manager and photo editor, and Linda Bouchard, copy editor. Vernon Mays, Dave Keller, and Erin Luckiesh all pitched in at different points.) The final files went off to the printer in Seoul late Friday (12 March 2010). The color work, no small matter, continues. The books are the work of many hands. They include case studies of Gensler projects, and the teams that worked on them were very responsive. However, they needed to see the case studies brought to a certain level of specificity before they really understood our intent. Once they did, new materials and thoughtful comments poured in.

10 March 2010

Bruce Graham

Bruce Graham spoke at Washington University's School of Architecture when I was a student there in the second half of the 1960s. He was cosmopolitan, not the terror I've heard described subsequently. He talked quite a bit about Latin America as a market. (He was born there, but it may have been the China of that era: Maki came by the school, too - on his way back from Latin America.) Graham had a late period that included a respectable tower in Barcelona (built during the Olympics) and Exchange House at Broadgate in London - a remarkable office tower that spans the tracks at Liverpool Street Station with its bridge-like structure. Both buildings were an anomaly for SOM, which was mired in (mostly bad) postmodernism at the time. His Inland Steel Building (designed with Walter Netsch) always struck me as the best of the three "towers" (with Crown Zellerbach and Lever House) that put SOM on the map in the 1950s.

08 March 2010

In awe of copy editors

I spent today on the second round of pickups for two books I'm editing, going through the copy editor's comments. The modifier holographic came to mind as I marveled at how this person surfaced the tiniest details for inspection. Putting these books together is like working on a Ducati - not that I've ever done so myself, but an amateur mechanic of my acquaintance once told me that rebuilding one was his most daunting project: "A lot of moving parts."