ROME VIEWED FROM A TERRACE ABOVE THE CAMPO DE' FIORI
COMMON PLACE No. 2 | March 2009
PREAMBLE What gives us pleasure is experience. Even with a beloved object, like a painting, we never see it the same way twice. The light changes, our eyes see the colors differently, or the room is warmer or colder.
For several years I’ve been writing about how to apply the lessons of the Slow Food movement to the development of Bay Regional towns and cities. This new issue of Common Place collects three essays on this topic—the second written with Richard Bender. They are revised somewhat from their published version to eliminate repetition and improve what I found when I revisited them. I’m grateful to the publications, noted at the end of each essay, where they first appeared.—John Parman
THE ROOFSCAPE OF ROME’S HISTORIC CENTER
I THE PLEASURES OF THE DEMOTIC CITY By demotic I mean arising from the individual, everyday actions of ordinary people, motivated by their immediate needs and circumstances and responding intuitively and sometimes creatively to the traditions and patterns of the society in which they find themselves. The pleasures that a city offers reflect both the nature and administration of its underlying framework and the tastes and initiatives of its citizens. They also reflect the relative power and influence of these two realms. Ideally, each is a check to the excesses of the other—and the cityscape is a useful indicator of where this balance stands. (By cityscape, I mean everything that pedestrians can reasonably expect to take in as they walk, including the parts of buildings in public view, the activities they house that are publicly accessible, the adjoining public and semi-public open spaces.) A recent review by the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff discusses one aspect of this. In doing so, he shows how this demotic realm has become a tug-of-war between these two interests, polis and demos. 1
Atlantic Yards’ public settings In his critique of the proposed redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, Ouroussoff commented on the weaknesses of its public settings. He bemoaned the city’s abdication of its role as their steward and sponsor, and noted how the architect, Frank Gehry, turned public courtyards into private enclaves, embedded in the complex’s larger mass. This, Ouroussoff wrote, reflects Gehry’s professional “coming of age…during the planning debates of the 1970s, when architects were dismantling the planning formulas of late Modernism in favor of dense urban villages.” Since then, “a growing number of architects, mostly European, have challenged that approach. Rather than splitting sprawling developments into more intimate spaces, they deliberately focus on the collision between the two: between the heroic scale of urban infrastructure and the fine-grained texture of the home.” Ouroussoff speculated that architects of this stripe “might have chosen to create a dialogue between the public zones at ground level” and elements of the surrounding city. He lamented the decision by Bruce Ratner, Atlantic Yards’ developer, not to implement—on grounds of cost—a proposal to cap the roof of the project’s basketball arena with a public garden that “seemingly floating in the skyline, might have evolved into one of New York’s most original public spaces.” He added that “such decisions could well determine whether Atlantic Yards will feel like a privileged enclave or belong to the community as a whole. One imagines what might have been possible if the city had the resources or the will to support such a vision.” To me, a shift in power from the developer to the city does not fundamentally change the duopoly they both enjoy over projects of this scale. And isn’t this scale itself really the inevitable result of that circumstance? To justify an investment that includes the built-in political diversions that are the developer’s price of entry and the politicians’ main motivation requires a large, intensively redeveloped site. Yet we know from bitter experience how often this formula disappoints. The devil’s bargain that these projects represent fatally compromises the larger community’s ability to shape and influence the cityscape over time. We experience this here, too, and our cities are less pleasurable in consequence. Paved with good intentions In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek noted that socialist regimes always opt for the case-by-case regulation of development, rather than allowing it to be based on rule of law. He argued that the hegemony of political power that characterizes socialist regimes inevitably breeds corruption. The fact that the money doesn’t directly change hands here doesn’t make its effects any less corrosive. Thanks to case-by-case regulation, an apparatus of scrutiny is now in place in San Francisco that bottlenecks the flow of projects and shifts the owner’s focus primarily to securing entitlements. This has proven to be destructive to the city’s urbanity. While the interest in better design quality shown recently by San Francisco’s Mayor and Planning Director is welcome, it is meaningless without a concomitant willingness to loosen the grip of political power. That means limiting case-by-case assessment and restoring rule of law and the reasonable use of precedent. In his final book, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek pointed to the traditions and patterns that are the real basis of society. A fallacy of socialism is its belief that laws and institutions are the result of conscious design. They are not, he argues; society is self-organizing, and traditions and patterns persist because they are robust in an evolutionary sense. This is not to say that “design” is absent, but rather that society in all its aspects is the unfolding outcome of different contributions, some from above, many more from below. This flow of ideas from every quarter is the source of the demotic city’s pleasures. The duopoly of power that gives us an Atlantic Yards and its equivalents here produces behemoths, mostly, that even when phased lack the vitality that cities built by other means usually manage to achieve. Ironically, a single owner—Tokyo’s Minoru Mori comes to mind—has more incentive than a duopoly to loosen the frame initially and then work like hell to keep it interesting. In San Francisco, classic build-and-sell developers of large projects have tended toward bulkiness and mediocrity. The Port and Airport, both monopolies, have done better with projects of this scale. True public-private partnerships, like Mission Bay and Yerba Buena Center, have shown mixed results. With culture in the 2
mix, Yerba Buena Center has a better middle block than Mission Bay has a UCSF research campus. Given the decades and millions of dollars expended on these different projects, the results are mixed. There has to be a better way to approach the city’s development. Restoring the virtuous circle In a recent article in the Financial Times, the food writer Philippa Davenport commented on the “virtuous circle of producers, chefs, and public” she found in San Francisco. She cited the Ferry Building— its shops, restaurants, and farmers’ markets—as exemplifying a region in which city and countryside have made a common cause of food. “The quality, the imagination, and the innovation are breathtaking,” she wrote. How is it that the food of northern California is so widely and generously celebrated, but contemporary placemaking here is not? Restaurants and markets, chefs, farmers, and the public have managed to join forces around this source of daily pleasure, raising it to a global standard, but our buildings and settings have not experienced a comparable transformation. There are instances when everyone rallies round and the results are good, but urbanity is mostly missing in action. Anyone who has seen Ostia Antico outside of Rome knows that the press of in-migration to the capital region (as we would call it now) at the height of Roman power led to an urban density—fivestory walkups—that looks familiar. That same pressure led to real efforts to achieve a level of public sanitation that is recognizably modern, and to the aqueducts and other monuments of infrastructure. Like the Spanish in reference to their American colonies, the Romans had a clear, almost archetypal sense of what a city should be. One function of the Roman state was to provide this frame, but Roman citizens had a corresponding obligation to defend and enliven it. The whole arc of Roman life was focused on this symbiotic relationship, which posited an active, socially mobile, and above all pleasureloving existence, rooted in family, friends, the city, and the land. We have no comparably demotic impulse to create a framework that orders the city and yet encourages, even demands that its citizens fill it in—a constant flux of activity within that greater whole. This happens here and there, but it is not yet a guiding idea that would rebalance things. So how can we begin to realize it in San Francisco? We cook and garden, watching things change from this to that to something else, seeing the rich variation that tradition affords and how chance and even error can prod a creative response. Part of the pleasure a city affords is its ability to allow for this. It’s what gives the city’s parts and pieces their authenticity, and it argues for a looser frame and for agreements on placemaking that make room for the demotic, establishing patterns that ordinary citizens can activate, both as their right and as a vitally necessary role. We need a looser frame because there are limits to what that frame can do. So much of what is bad in recent development flows from the hubris of politicians and their planners about what can actually be achieved through regulation. However well-intentioned, what officials think about the design of an entry or of fenestration is really just their opinions, matters of individual taste. That’s not really their business. We expect the city to inspect the food and the kitchens of our restaurants, but not to choose the restaurant’s cuisine or dictate our choices from the menu. Placemaking is no different. Allowing for a demotic impulse is a way of “cultivating” the cityscape through its buildings and other elements. The roof terraces and substantial balconies of Rome’s historic core create a secondary order of variation that brings the public realm alive and reconnects people to nature, even in the heart of the city. This is an aspect of green design that has gone missing here in new development: the deliberate and fertile expression of human habitation. At Tokyo’s Ark Hills complex, tenants and neighbors pay for the privilege of tending the gardens that are this private development’s public realm. This is a reasonable transaction in a crowded city—one that gives Ark Hills such beauty as it has. A city is like a river, but we’ve turned ours into a glacier. Too much is fixed that should really be the city’s demotic flux. In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander suggests the presence of life as the way to gauge the rightness of things. That measure of vitality also speaks to the demotic nature of much of the pleasure that a city gives us. We need more of it here. 2
Notes 1. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Skyline for Sale,” New York Times, June 4, 2006. He uses the term “late Modernism” here to describe the Modernism of the seventies, but this has also been used to describe Modernism’s revival in the late 1990s. So which is it? Perhaps we should rename the latter “neo-modernism” or even “modernist revival.” 2. Philippa Davenport, “America’s golden state enjoys its salad daze,” Financial Times, July 1/2, 2006. Written in September and October 2006 and published in LINE’s “Pleasure” issue, fall 2006.
THE “VICTORY” GARDEN AT SF’s CITY HALL
II NOT TOO SLOW, NOT TOO SMART Can we “slow” the growth of San Francisco’s metropolitan region without stopping it? By Slow, we refer to the Slow Food movement and its CittaSlow offshoot, especially in their emphasis on the value and pleasures of regional difference. “Without stopping it” is to acknowledge the region’s projected growth. Our title’s smart refers to smart growth—livable is another favored adjective, both endorsing density without always asking what it means in practice. Like the Buddha, we seek a middle way between Slow and smart that aims at enjoyment and conviviality. Like the Californians we’ve both become, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. The Problem Space Between 2007 and 2030, the nine counties that make up the Bay Region will grow in population from 7.2 million to 8.7 million people, a net gain of about 1.5 million people. Will these newcomers be housed within the 700,000 acres of currently developed land, about 15.5% of the region’s total land area of 4.5 million acres? Or will they continue to erode the undeveloped balance, reducing still further the land available for farming, recreation, wildlife, and the maintenance of the region’s ecosystem? (No small matter, as it includes much of the river delta that supplies many California cities with water—an area for which substantial low-density residential development has been proposed. ) This is half of the problem; the other half has to do with the density of development required within the region’s already developed areas simply to maintain their current boundaries. (Ideally, it would be possible to pull them in, especially where low-density sprawl has penetrated mindlessly into farmland or the ecosystem.) Greenbelt Alliance and others have tried to determine what density would be required, but this analysis does not fully consider the qualitative side of the problem: what increases in density would actually mean for a neighborhood in human, experiential terms. So the “problem space” that the region poses is how to accommodate future growth in ways that preserve and even reclaim open space, yet do so in ways that are not just “sound” in terms of current planning dogma (e.g., “dense, compact, and transit-served”), but also create appropriate settings for a humane and enjoyable life as this is broadly understood by those who live and work in its towns and cities. In framing it in this way, we want to emphasize that the future of the region must be thought of holistically, seeing open space preservation and fine-grained development as connected ideas, both of which point to the pleasure and prosperity that the region can offer its residents. 1
Greenbelt Alliance’s Prescription Focused on preserving open land, Greenbelt Alliance has formulated a program that is widely accepted by other policy-shaping organizations in the region. Here is the gist: Growth boundaries: cities, towns, and other communities in the region should agree to establish inviolable boundaries for development. Lands falling outside them (but within their jurisdiction) are to be left as open space, whether under private or public ownership. Walkable urbanism: to accommodate future growth, cities and towns should require a higher density of development, especially around transit (train and light rail stations) and transit corridors (arterials served by buses). Even when transit is not yet in place, patterns of development should anticipate it by favoring compactness and higher density.
Opposition to this program came initially (and predictably) from some owners of large land parcels that fell outside of the growth boundaries established on the urban edge. Elections in these communities often feature ballot measures aimed at creating exceptions for specific parcels. Opposition is also coming from some of the affected urban neighborhoods. The Association of Bay Area Governments sets goals for housing development in the region that, if disregarded, can theoretically impact a city’s ability to tap regional grants for affordable housing and other purposes. In Berkeley, for example, meeting the goal would require the construction of 14 16-story housing towers in its downtown core, according to the city’s planning staff. The state has also mandated development “bonuses” that increase multiunit housing density in a way that overrides local zoning. Density and its Enemies So density is emerging as a major point of contention in the region. In the urban core, it is focused on absolute density—height and bulk—and how it contributes to or detracts from the community around it. In urban neighborhoods, the question of impact is heightened. Style, use, ownership, and a desire to preserve the existing fabric figure in the debates about each and every project. In the newer suburbs, intensification of established areas to preserve greenspace vies with efforts to carve out new territory for office campuses and large single-family home developments. Especially in the city and the older suburbs, the debate about density comes down to two positions: that it’s good because it provides affordable housing and prevents sprawl; or that it’s bad because it undermines a community’s existing character (and, by implication, its property values: Berkeley was extensively down-zoned in the 1970s by residential real estate interests, representing middle- and upper-middle-class owners). In recent years, these positions have hardened, with each side refusing to acknowledge the other. Density is “entirely good” and preservationists “almost always wrong” (about the historic merits of what they try to preserve) and vice versa. This deadlocked situation has created a vacuum that developers and politicians have not failed to fill and exploit. Fear of overdevelopment has led to constant skirmishes in Berkeley around the issues of growth and density. Measure P, put on the ballot by petition, sought to limit the height of new construction in the city. A more recent measure sought to maintain the current, restrictive Landmarks ordinance. Both measures failed, but the second lost by a much smaller margin. As in other US cities, San Francisco and Berkeley have politicized development so that almost every project of any size has to be reviewed in a way that stretches out the entitlements process inordinately and makes the owner or developer liable to a variety of political pressures. The time and money involved favor politically-connected developers with the “deep pockets” needed to get through it. This creates a “duopoly” that links their interests with their political gatekeepers. It produces projects of a scale and nature at odds with their surroundings and even with the city itself as a place with a unique character—oversized and overly prepackaged. Prewar developers left room for demotic content in their projects, not just in the retail mix, but also in the ways that “communal” open space was provided and used. In the grip of the duopoly, we have lost this art. Our cities fail to encourage ordinary people to participate in their reshaping over time. There’s no flux, and no real life. 5
Slow in the Bay Region The Slow Movement has tremendous resonance in the Bay Area, where a love of good food and wine has led to a renaissance in local organic farms catering to food halls and farmers’ markets. The wineries started this, moving from purely domestic mass products to high-end “appellation” wines that compete globally for prizes and buyers. Chefs like Alice Waters, now one of Slow Food’s international vice-presidents, extended this to a cuisine based on the availability of locally grown, “seasonal” ingredients. Even the Berkeley public schools have embraced it, with the chef Ann Cooper running its kitchens. The Slow Movement can seem like something from The Theory of the Leisure Class, yet its manifesto has a commonsensical truth. Whether we are thinking of food or city life, the pleasures of living well are worth defending in the face of external forces, not least our own ignorance and negligence. A metropolis like ours would benefit from Slow thinking—but not too slow. Efforts to apply the Slow Food perspective to urban life began in small towns in Tuscany, worried about the impact of tourism and development. The CittaSlow (CitySlow) offshoot that resulted limits itself to “cities” of no more than 50,000 residents. This places it below the threshold even of Berkeley, which has about 110,000 residents. It also ignores the fact that cities like San Francisco are made up of districts and neighborhoods that are not so different in size or in the pressures they face from the Italian hill towns whose citizens first penned Cittaslow’s manifesto 18 years ago. Resisting the forces of Fast Preserving the quality of urban life means accommodating growth in sustainable ways. This is the other side of Slow. In urging local producers to find global markets, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini acknowledged that growth can be positive, an indication of quality and urbanity. This is a crucial distinction. Folco Portinari’s Slow Food manifesto, written in 1989, attacked speed rather than growth as the enemy of “a better future.” The 20th century, he wrote, that “began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model.” He asserted that “real culture is about developing taste rather than demeaning it,” arguing for “ a firm defense of material pleasure” as “the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life” that “in the name of productivity has changed our way of being and threatens our environment.” The forces arrayed against the quality of our urban life are also Fast, and “smart” development is too often part of it—as in our willingness to accept bad design if it hits a density target. And no-growth is smart growth’s inevitable twin, locked in a battle that produces mediocrity and sameness. Just as we oppose Fast in this sense, we oppose a Slow that clings without reflection to what exists. Slow is not the same as No. Growth is desirable if it enables a region to remain “alive,” and to “rediscover the flavors and savors” (quoting Portinari) that make it what it is. That this also requires pruning and paring has to be faced as part of this active cultivation. There are signs of change. Politically-connected architects who regularly secured commissions in San Francisco based on their ability to push projects through the entitlements process are finding that they’ve lost their touch. Much better architects are showing that pleasure is affordable, and that not every new building has to cater to empty-nest baby boomers returning from the suburbs. If a proper balance can be restored between the city as a looser framework for development and its citizens as more active city makers, then life will be more pleasurable and the region will be better protected. 3
Notes 1. At Risk: The Bay Area Greenbelt, 2006 edition, Greenbelt Alliance, 2006, pp. 2-3. 2. See Jane Wolff, Delta Primer, William Stout, 2003. 3. Smart Infill, Greenbelt Alliance, 2008. 4. The quotes are from Fabio Parasecoli, “Postrevolutionary Chowhounds,” Gastronomica. Summer 2003. Cittaslow’s founding charter is in English on the Cittaslow UK website. Also see Paul L. Knox, “Creating Ordinary Places: Slow Cities in a Fast World,” Journal of Urban Design, February 2005.
OUR SLOWBAY MANIFESTO Here is our first draft of a manifesto for a Slow Bay Region that affords urbanity and pleasure while still accommodating the growth in population that experts are projecting. Create boundaries for density, not just growth We need to cut through the current impasse by agreeing on what we mean by density in each and every area where development can still occur. Density is not just an abstraction; it has to serve communities and support their existing residents as well as new ones. There’s nothing wrong with establishing goals for density, but they have to contribute in clear and fundamental ways to the experiential qualities that make each place what it is(or what it could be). Make urbanity count We need a robust vision of the region’s urbanity that takes lessons from its rich culture of food and wine, not shrinking from creativity, experimentation, and the demotic element that challenges and changes tastes, and is unafraid of outside influences—knowing that the region will absorb them and make them its own. Then we need to put this vision first. Restore the demotic; end the duopoly The tendency of Bay Regional cities to politicize development at almost every scale, making owners and leaseholders jump through endless hoops, is depriving us of the spontaneous contributions of individuals, operating within rules that are broad enough to allow creative interpretation. It makes for a duopoly that favors large projects that are shaped by “global” assumptions about market preferences, and that attract only the biggest players. There are exceptions, but this is too much the norm. See the region as a whole Understanding the region holistically, especially as an ecosystem, would immediately put a halt to insanities like the current pressure to develop the Delta, one of California’s main sources of fresh water, as single-family housing. It would encourage us to invest much more in transit and much less in freeways, and to value open land like our first-born. Honor our real traditions The historic patterns of the region have favored a humane density in urban development coupled with the preservation of the natural landscape. They have always acted as a brake to heedless sprawl, and making them the law of the land would solve a lot of problems. Put our money where our mouth is Americans tend to wait until the future they dreaded arrives before dealing with it. We have to break this habit. The best way to do so is to fall in love again with a region that, for many of us, captured our hearts when we first set eyes on it, savored its delicious food and wine, and walked its captivating streets. Something this beautiful demands our indulgence, our generosity, and our commitment. We know how to treat it well, and yet we have so often failed to do so. It’s time to change. Written with Richard Bender for the Forms in the City/Spaces in the Metropolis conference, Rome, 2-3 April 2007, and published in Rassegna di Architettura e Urbanistica no. 126, September–December 2007, pgs. 50–55.
CONGREGATION BETH SHOLOM
III URBAN TERROIR Terroir refers to the conditions of terrain and microclimate in wine-growing regions and, more specifically, within a given vineyard. It takes in those attributes of place that influence the grapes and thus the wine. Terroir is an evolving context, subject to human intervention and to the vicissitudes of nature in a larger sense. It evolves, but the pace of evolution of its different elements can vary radically. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed. We use words like structure, scale, density, and fabric to describe the urban context, but these are all elements of something larger. By calling this “something larger” terroir, we raise the possibility of cultivation, but against a deeper background—the regional ecosystem in which a city is situated. Terroir could also be said to be that part of nature we can influence. Thus its boundaries are potentially vast. Exurbia, the embodiment of our economically and culturally divided society, is also a byproduct of a cultivation strategy that treats social displacement in its different forms as an externality. The question of who cultivates, and why, is as legitimate for city making as it is for farming, fishing, or forestry. Reclaiming terroir In The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi writes of scale that “it is conceivable that a change in scale modified an urban artifact in some way; but it does not change its quality.” Citing the urban geographer Richard Ratcliff, he adds, “To reduce metropolitan problems to problems of scale means to ignore…the actual structure of the city and its conditions of evolution.” Rossi then quotes the critic Giuseppe Samonà, writing in the mid-1960s: 1
It is absolutely out of the question, in my opinion, to nurture any idea of gigantic spatial parameters. In truth, we find ourselves, as at all times, in a situation that, from a general point of view, presents man and his space in well-balanced proportion, and in a relationship analogous to that of the ancients, except that in today’s relationship all the spatial measures are greater than were the more fixed ones of fifty years ago. 2
The key words here are quality, well-balanced proportion, and relationship. What is to be avoided are “gigantic spatial parameters” which ignore or traduce the relationship between “man and his space.” Terroir posits human cultivation, and cultivation in an urban sense is how a city becomes “our space.” In cultivating our urban terroir, we address and value the relationship itself. Whatever furthers it—scale, 8
for example—becomes part of the terroir, cultivated both for its own sake and for what it can contribute to the outcomes we desire to achieve and also to sustain. Sustainability is intrinsic to terroir, one reason why we cultivate it. Structure and scale (for example) lack this connotation. They can be dead, to use Christopher Alexander’s apt word for it; terroir is organic, alive. What gives terroir efficacy compared to words like density or fabric is that it explicitly takes in humanity and nature, so we cannot treat it as a thing unmoored from both. 3
Resisting gigantism Samonà cautions us that scale is necessarily a human scale, or gigantism may result. In a different context, Wallace Stegner described his talkative aunt. Finally noticing the huge rock formation rising dead ahead of them—they were in a car—she was rendered speechless, unable to wrap her mind around it. “You have to get used to an inhuman scale,” Stegner wrote. Cities can also have a scale that diminishes the possibility of a human relationship. If we build canyons that become wind tunnels, we have to cultivate the affected streets and plazas to bring them back to life. If every act of building has the potential to further the human relationship, then gigantism is really an egotism that disregards that possibility. As this suggests, gigantism flows from a willful or mindless ignorance with respect to terroir. Preservationists that reflexively resist higher-density development, privileging their own neighborhoods over the region’s remaining open space, show a similar egotism, yet their fears of gigantism seem justified by experience. Why is it that we get gigantism much more often than we get urbanity? One could say, borrowing from Jean-François Lyotard, that the “grand narrative” of regional open space preservation, so well accepted by Bay Area opinion makers, has become a pretext for the “soft terrorism” of Smart Growth. The results fall right in line with Lyotard’s now 30-year-old critique: “On the one hand, the system can only function by reducing complexity, and on the other, it must induce the adaptation of individual aspirations to its own ends. The reduction in complexity is required to maintain the system’s power capability.” This power capability is very much in place. Reforming it doesn’t mean streamlining the process— we tried that under former Mayor Willie Brown—but taking it out of the hands of politicians, restoring consensus and rule of law, yet doing so as postmodernists, accepting nuance and difference. 4
Rethinking tradition Entire swathes of San Francisco—neighborhoods we know and love—were built based on a shared understanding of the city’s terroir. The introduction of taller, more massive buildings, first in the financial district and then in lower-density industrial areas to the north and south, ended that consensus. Especially south of Market, the results are mixed. Yet there are a growing number of examples of higherdensity projects that achieve the kind of urbanity that we associate with the best of the city’s established districts. Certain architects stand out in their ability to do this across a range of building types and scales, and their work in the city is worth studying as potential precedents. The best new tall buildings around the city’s Mission Street corridor make room for the people on the ground. These aren’t lifeless plazas, either. They’re run just as well as they’re designed, and their owners clearly get that a civic gesture not only buys them constant goodwill, but makes their properties stand out from the competition. The best mid-sized developments create open space and through-block porosity, add balconies that people really use, and vary the height and shape of the buildings and their elements to avoid a monolithic look that substitutes groundscraper for blocky highrise. 7
Rethinking cultivation Pattern books were part of a consensus about city form at different levels that made the rule of law in development possible. Although pattern books posited specific designs, they were liberally interpreted by individual builders. More importantly, they reflected a shared understanding of how neighborhoods took shape, with the underlying house pattern reflecting the way the individual blocks were divided up In A Pattern Language, Alexander and his collaborators documented the elements that make everyday life worth living. It may be timely to take their work further—to update the patterns that supported the 8
quality of everyday life in our cities through the early postwar period, but then fell into disuse as the desire for a higher density took hold. We have never really replaced these older patterns, which could be tailored to each and every block. Without them, we are cast adrift in the politicized world of case by case, and cultivation becomes a shouting match. With them, city making can shift back to what it was for eons: a widely-shared human activity. The cultivation of urban terroir requires this kind of “working” consensus. Despite a planning apparatus and an elaborate playbook, the recent development of cities like San Francisco and Berkeley has mainly reflected the developer-influenced whims of politicians, with each new project serving as a vehicle for securing contributions and bragging rights. Only GSA and the genuinely civic groups responsible for the new public museums have used this license intelligently. Since those philosopher-kings (and queens) are not always available, putting cultivation back in the hands of the community is safer. The city’s leadership still has a role to play in guiding cultivation. They are the stewards, to use a word that often arises in university campus planning. Part of their responsibility, part of what they steward, is the urban terroir. They have to balance the claims of the region—the necessary preservation of open land, for example—with the claims of the community to live well within necessarily higher densities. They have to connect the dots, do the math, and help the community understand and explore its options—not in abstract, but literally neighborhood by neighborhood. Most of all, they have to avoid the “grand narratives” that paper over false solutions, and acknowledge that consensus can only really be achieved at the local level, as an evolving, constantly negotiated resolution. The community, too, has responsibilities. Neighborhoods are alive because the people who live there care about them and participate in their cultivation. One way to make this happen is to devolve power to them, but to hand that power over with stipulations. How a higher density is to be achieved is ideally a neighborhood decision. Friedrich Engel’s idea that the housing crisis could be solved by rethinking how existing housing is used is relevant to a number of San Francisco and Berkeley districts. Density does not always mean bigger—it can also mean used more intensively. Many neighborhoods are working to address urban crime and postearthquake recovery—topics that force them to interact with adjoining blocks to pursue shared interests and initiatives. They could also come to grips with how to meet their communal obligations to the region—to absorb expected population growth, reduce congestion and pollution, use water and energy more efficiently, and preserve the larger ecosystem while maintaining, reviving, and creating urbanity where it counts. 9
Rethinking participation At a time when, in virtually every other walk of life, people go online to find information and plug into specific communities to understand their options and track and cultivate their personal interests, the mechanisms of “community” are inefficient and out of touch. The remarkable Obama campaign exemplified what can happen when the means and methods of the rest of life are applied to neighborhoodscale organizing and initiatives: a dialogue becomes possible across “interested” communities, which the official city can support, participate in, and sometimes help frame or augment. Our cities need to face reality and begin to leverage the tools that everyone else is using now on an individual basis, and put urban cultivation on a new footing, so that this shared civic responsibility can be carried out in a more open and balanced way—with the terroir in mind. Politics will continue—this is not an argument for “good government.” That said, bringing the city and the community back on the same page is a necessity, both to define a new consensus about the city’s cultivation, one neighborhood at a time, and to recognize that the relationship between them has to change. The city’s broad powers will be curtailed, while the community will have more to do. Every neighborhood will need to tend its own vineyard, with a better understanding of how this contributes to the urban terroir. 10
Notes 1. Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, 1982, pages 160–161. 2. Rossi is quoting (on page 161) from an essay by Giuseppe Samonà, published in 1964. 3. Alexander’s insistence, in The Nature of Order, that we measure the built realm by its vitality, radically asserts its connection to the rest of life. Alexander, the Tolstoy of architectural theory, is much criticized for his discursive and messianic writings, but on the fundamentals, he has always been on to something. 4. Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry Land,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Modern Library, 2002, pages 52–54. The quote reads, “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.” 5. It is not just regional open space that is treated as an externality by gigantism of this sort; the homeless are another “urban externality” that mysteriously drops out of the frame of neighborhood preservation on the one hand and high-density redevelopment on the other. One could mention the exclusionary nature of public employment here, too: no sign of the poor sweeping up the parks, for example, and their rifling of recycling bins is considered a crime in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Berkeley. 6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, page 61. The book was first published in 1979. It’s interesting to me that Rossi, Alexander, Lyotard, and others—like Ivan Illich, Jane Jacobs, and Paul Feyerabend—whose works also have a bearing, directly or indirectly, on the theme of terroir, were all writing around the same time. That period was characterized by left/right debates on issues that are back on the table today, from oil shortages to urban terrorism. It ended with the US and the UK shifting rightward toward unfettered global capitalism. As the US now shifts the other way, let’s hope we learned something in the interim. 7. For example: SOM’s 101 Second Street, St. Regis, and UCSF Mission Bay Housing; Pelli Clarke Pelli on Mission Street; Studios on Howard Street; Stanley Saitowitz on Folsom Street and on 14th Avenue; Leddy Maytum Stacey on Sixth Street; Thom Mayne/Morphosis on Seventh Street; and David Baker on Eighth Street and elsewhere. There are others, but collectively they are the exception and banality is the rule—in a city that is remarkably and even courageously cosmopolitan in many other respects. 8. Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, 1977. Alexander is best at recording specific attributes of towns and cities—their settings at different scales—that make them truly livable and enjoyable. His willingness to say that we know if a place or a building is alive or dead restores ordinary people to their rightful place as measurers of all they survey. When we start to consider new patterns of city making that are in tune with humanity and nature, we often find that Alexander has been there before us. We may not agree with his account of the terrain, but we can appreciate what he knows and what he’s seen. 9. Ivan Illich comments on modernity’s “loss of proportionality” or “common sense” (in The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, Anansi, 2005, pages 136–137): This loss of proportionality points to the historical uniqueness of modernity, its incomparability. The poetic, performative quality of existence was erased and forgotten in field after field… And in this transition from a world based on experience of fit, of appropriateness, to a world which I can’t even name, a world in which words have lost their contours, what was once called common sense has been washed out. Common sense, as this term was used of old, meant the sense of what fits, what belongs, what is appropriate. It was by common sense, for example, that the physician understood the limits of what he could and should do. Illich and Alexander share a sense that modernity is fatal to humane patterns of living/being. I think they would argue, in contrast to Samonà’s statement about scale in a modern context, that gigantism is inherent—that is, a constant danger—in the modern loss of proportionality and common sense (as Illich puts it). In an earlier introduction to Illich and his work (Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, page 15), David Cayley writes that Illich, drawing on the work of Leopold Kohr, who pioneered a philosophy of social size, claimed that: To each social environment there corresponds a set of natural scales. … In each of these dimensions, tools that require time periods or space or energies much beyond the order of corresponding natural scales are dysfunctional. In Rivers North, Illich describes the introduction of tempered scales in music (pages 134–136)—a passage that suggests to me that modernity requires us to find “tempered” forms that can be harmoniously combined. We have to “learn not to hear disharmony,” he says. Perhaps we have to learn not see it, either, in order both to feel at home in the modern city and begin to reclaim it for ourselves. It is in this spirit that I point to Saitowitz’s Congregation Beth Sholom and Mayne’s Federal Office Building, each of which has been accused (by John King and Dean Macris, respectively) of disharmony—buildings that are tempered as the latter building’s neighbor, the SoMA Grand, is not. Seeing them, I felt that each fits harmoniously with its context, but in a new way. By studying this new way, we may be able to find new patterns of city making that are suited to the city we’ve become. (By pattern I mean precedents that suggest ideas about how to work—plan, design, and build—in a given context.)
10. In Berkeley, Kitchen Democracy provides an online forum to discuss and weigh in on issues of public debate. There are signs that the city’s leaders are paying attention. Some question if this is really participation, but it may be where it needs to go to be effective. Written in November and December 2008 and published in LINE’s “Slow” issue, January 2009.
POSTSCRIPT: LOOKING BEYOND SLOW I went to see my friend and writing partner Richard Bender earlier today, and we talked about where to take this. We both feel that, with these three essays, we’ve exhausted Slow as a topic. Yet it’s a potent metaphor, as is terroir. Where do they point? Ivan Illich surfaced while I was writing the third essay. His willingness to make fundamental critiques of received wisdom on education, healthcare, transit, water, gender, and, behind them, of modern life itself, and to pose radical alternatives, makes him the man of the hour. When I read David Cacey’s interviews with Illich, I got a better sense of his ideas and positions. I was struck by his assertion that modernity erodes human-centered proportionality. Gigantism or inhuman scale is one result, but this can also take the form of grandiosity—our modern belief that we run the world. The current unwinding of the world economy reflects, once again, the exposure of this fallacy. Capitalism may be under attack, but modernity is the actual elephant in the room. The current crisis is like the loss of faith that swept through the intellectual and professional classes of mid-Victorian England and Scotland in the 19th century. Abandoning their belief, they put their energy with a vengeance into creating modern life. Maynard Keynes wrote that their work ethic made it possible for him and cohort to be modern without being dissolute. Those of his generation notably valued the pleasures of everyday life. They were Slow before the word gained this connotation. Modernism sought to bend humanity to pared-down notions of a healthy life. Blaming the ills of society, like tuberculosis, on defects in city form, it proposed to sweep it away and substitute new patterns that leveraged speed, but also sought through rational planning to guarantee everyone a place in the sun and access to supportive public infrastructure. Its legacy is bits and parts that worked, and a powerful aesthetic, risible in certain ways, enduring in others. Or we could say that its legacy is one disaster after another, from fascist embrace to postwar redevelopment. The question, similar to the one that Hayek raised about socialism, is whether or not modernism leads invariably to disaster. Modernity is not quite modernism. It’s where we’ve ended up or, more accurately, how life has been led all along as people lived their lives in and around the modern program. The famous relook at the Domino project that Corbu designed in Pessac, like the infamous Wall in Kowloon, suggests that people will assert themselves if they can. Abandoned public housing blocks, a late-20th-century phenomenon in Europe and the US, make the point that they’ll destroy them or desert them if they can’t. Dwell captures the seductive part of modernism. Retrospectives on the modernists at the VA and of Corbu at the Mori Art Center reinforced the humane character of the modern aesthetic up to a certain scale. Late modernism is valuable in part for its willingness to experiment with the limits of scale, but this does not yet add up to real patterns or a sense of how cities can densify and still retain urbanity. Modernity is not really an aesthetic, but—as Illich points out—the abandonment of common sense. The current crisis may shock us sufficiently to wake us to this fact, restoring proportionality to modern life and giving us a clearer sense of the proper limits of human intervention. Put an end to grandiosity and much else may find a human scale and a renewed demotic spirit. It will take time, because cities in an official sense, institutions, and corporations are conditioned to their hubris. It’s clear, though, that we can’t afford it. This used to be argued in human terms, but now it’s financial, too. What’s in front of us is a massive adjustment—not going back, but going forward from a deeper past. — John Parman, Berkeley, 1 March 2009
BOOK REVIEW: WHAT REMAINS In his Modern Architecture, Kenneth Frampton distinguishes critical regionalism from regionalism as “a spontaneously produced” vernacular. Critical regionalism is intended “to identify those recent regional ‘schools’ whose primary aim has been to reflect and serve the limited constituencies in which they are grounded.” It depends on “a certain prosperity,” he writes, as well as “some kind of anti-centrist consensus, an aspiration at least to some form of cultural, economic and political independence.” Like Lewis Mumford before him, Frampton counts San Francisco as such a school. A new book by the architect and critic Pierluigi Serraino, NorCalMod, challenges this view. Interested in California’s mid-20th century modernism and prompted by a suggestion from Elaine Jones to look at the Bay Area, “considered a hotbed of modern architecture in the fifties,” Serraino has written a revisionist history of its postwar period. Along the way, he also discusses the importance of architectural photographers and the role of the east coast-centered design press in drawing attention to architects at the periphery of their editorial vision. Rethinking Bay Regionalism Serraino argues that the official history of postwar Bay Regionalism distorts the facts by consciously excluding modernism and its Bay Area exponents. In his view, The evidence reveals an incohesive chorus of voices, if not an atomized design aesthetic, among Northern California architects during this time. When all these dots are connected, the picture that emerges is rather different, indeed more comprehensive and richer in design vocabulary than one might expect: Northern California was an unrestrained laboratory for Modern architecture, propelled by the explosion of the national economy. Regionalists and Modernists alike promoted economy of design, but through profoundly different architectural expressions.
In the early 1980s, I worked with San Francisco architect Joseph Esherick on an article in Space & Society on the evolution of his work. In one of our conversations, he said to me that he felt that the steady stream of national and international design magazines made it impossible for architects here to avoid the contamination of larger movements, whatever they might be. Is this the anti-centrism that Frampton believes is characteristic of regional schools? In fact, the “regional” architect who said it shared the status of an outsider with Bernard Maybeck, Chuck Bassett, and Stanley Saitowitz—to name three other of the Bay Region’s leading lights. All four arrived here trained in a larger tradition, and then absorbed what they found—its history and most of all its sense of place. Esherick was the most directly influenced by older Bay Regional architects, but the work he and his EHDD collaborators produced was as eclectic as Serraino posits. Among the influences: Corbu and Kahn (through Esherick), and MLTW and Rossi (through his gifted partner George Homsey). Homsey, a kind of fifth Beatle to MLTW, influenced them in turn. In a recent interview in LINE, Bill Stout noted that Allan Temko, Bay Regional modernism’s main polemicist, paid no attention to houses. That omission left William Wurster free to frame the official history of region’s architecture in his own image. San Francisco modernism was the province of SOM— something imported. (It’s interesting that Wurster looked back to Timothy Pflueger’s 1930s moderne style for inspiration when he paired up with SOM on San Francisco’s Bank of America Tower in the late 1960s.) Not every modernist here fell off the East Coast’s radar, but the story definitely got around. Architecture and the Media A practicing architect and independent scholar, Serraino wrote an earlier book with Julius Shulman, the iconic photographer of midcentury modernism in Southern California. It’s not surprising, then, that his beautifully illustrated new book is also an excellent primer for architects on how to document their work so historians can find it. This reflects Serraino’s view that only “that which is photographed, reported, and generations later still retrievable can continue to exist in architectural history.”
In a maxim worthy of Goethe, Serraino takes this thought a measure further: Architecture without photographs is like a traveler without a passport: it has no identity as far as the media is concerned. Photography makes architecture noticeable. Also, photography is the oxygen of architecture. It keeps its sister field alive in the present and in the future.
His maxim refers to architects as well as architecture. Indeed, his best example is the architect David Thorne. After designing a widely published modernist house in the Oakland hills for Dave Brubeck, he felt pressured by the resulting media coverage and deliberately slipped under the radar, changing his first name and assiduously keeping himself and his work out of the press. As a result, both “disappeared” until Serraino rediscovered them. So is it “publish or perish,” even for architects? Serraino is right that it’s important to document one’s work and that the choice of photographer matters in terms of securing coverage. That coverage has its limits, though. The design press is a distorting mirror, both in how it values and reports on contemporary work and the way it credits who did what. It’s also ephemeral, in terms of public consciousness. Houses aren’t the Acropolis, but they have owners. There’s a natural curiosity about their provenance, and in the Bay Region’s often inflated housing market, provenance has value. Roger Lee may have been invisible nationally, but he’s still a known commodity in the East Bay. Seeing the Work with New Eyes The rise of Dwell and the importance now given to midcentury modernist houses make a book like Serraino’s, that reassesses the work of earlier decades in light of current tastes, seem almost inevitable. The passage of time makes it easier to understand how the work of the Bay Regional modernists differs from their contemporaries and builds imaginatively on modernist antecedents. At the time, east coast editors may have seen their work as derivative of trends more fully developed elsewhere. LA, hyped by photographers like Shulman who made the work there seem so sexy, got the attention. What sets the modernism of the Bay Region apart from everywhere else is the place itself—its dramatic sites, especially for houses, and its remarkable light and climate. It’s not the only place with these qualities, but they give our version of midcentury modernism its DNA. One of the best things about NorCalMod is its inclusiveness. Serraino understands how this sense of place links pure exemplars of the International Style, like Donald Olsen, to architects like Roger Lee who are much closer to the ranch house style that is as close as we really get to midcentury vernacular. NorCalMod displays this vividly, drawing on our region’s best postwar architectural photographers— a tribute to Serraino’s tenacity in getting their remarkable photographs into print, thus documenting one of the high water marks of the region’s architecture. In this sense, the book is a kind of love letter from the past to a new generation of architects here—with this talented Italian as its messenger. Review of Pierluigi Serraino: NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism, Chronicle, 2006, published in ArcCA 06.4.
COMMON PLACE © 2009 by John Parman; essay 2 and coda © 2009 by Richard Bender and John Parman Credits: Cover photo of Rome’s Campo de' Fiori by Mary Lebeck; photo of the Roman roofscape by Patricia Sonnino; photo of the Civic Center Victory Garden by James Monday; photo of Stanley Saitowitz’s Congregation Beth Sholom by Rien van Rijthoven. Website: http://complace.j2parman.com Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org