A couple of years ago my wife, Debbie, and I joined a tour of Lower Haight homes built more than a century ago. Mostly Victorians, their facades were exquisite in ways San Franciscans sometimes forget to appreciate: carefully crafted moldings, vibrant color contrasts, one-of-a-kind windows. Their painted faces create a festive public sphere, like a bright smile from a stranger passing by.
“One hundred years from now, do you think people will tour the houses that’re being built today,” I asked Debbie.
“I doubt it,” she said.
Architectural beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Some find Victorians, Edwardians, Queen Annes, and their ilk fatuous and overly precious. Others might prefer Early Suburban Tracts – ubiquitous in the Marina, Sunset, and even Potrero Hill – which were the subject of glowing San Francisco Chronicle articles that appeared alongside ads from developers when they were first constructed during the 1930s and 1940s.
Still, the weight of public opinion is on the side of homes built from the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th Century. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the “Six Sister” Victorians across the street from Alamo Square each year; at best travelers might glance as they drive by the Tract homes in Daly City alongside Interstate-280, and be inspired to break into the “Little Boxes” song from the early-1960s.
Today’s architecture is dictated by New Modernism, what Debbie calls “squares within squares, in which style is expressed by painting one square a different color than another.” In its best renditions, it can be chic and edgy, like structures that might be delivered by massive drones from Amazon’s experimental laboratories; or even a kind of riff on stone-age cliff dwellings. There are a number of attractive New Modernist buildings in Dogpatch, possibly as the result of community design efforts led by the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association.
In its worst, more common, iteration, New Modernism looks cheap and prematurely tired. When herded together, like in Mission Bay or The Shipyard, New Modernism creates neighborhoods that feel as if they could be anywhere, completely divorced from what San Francisco was, or probably wants, to be. Yet the style feeds off the City’s past; large chunks of its value is created by New Modernism’s proximity to its betters, like a parasite attached to a magnificent Blue Whale, slowly eating away at its host until it threatens to become the dominant creature.
San Franciscans constantly debate the proper height, density, and affordability of new developments. These elements benefit from being easily mathematically expressed; is a 45-feet tall structure allowed, or 60-feet? Arguments over design are mushier, burdened with less certain language. “I don’t like that” isn’t sufficient, nor, necessarily, are calls to stylistically adhere to a neighborhood’s architectural context. Difference isn’t so much the problem as insipidness. But whose to judge?
Judge we must. Our physical surroundings deeply impact our moods, and may even shape the way our brains work. Classic college campuses are designed to illicit a sense of intellectual gravity and historical connections with thinkers past. Open space frees the mind to wander, without distractions from billboards and other commercial detritus. A nearby power plant, or freeway, reminds its neighbors that we live in a still industrial-age society, which may not fully care about the polluting consequences of its activities.
The alternative to critiquing what we want our environs to look like is to subject our City to a steady stream of development that’s shaped by a host of planning requirements – such as number of parking spots – and short-term profits, but little in the way of aesthetic guidance.
One strategy would be to ask San Francisco’s architects, the drafts people of our built environment, to launch a collective conversation about what designs, or design elements, might best suit a future San Francisco, and which should be avoided. Citizen-activists, fighting one-off design challenges in Dogpatch, the Hill, South-of-Market, and elsewhere, could be enlisted in this dialectic.
Ultimately, the goal would be to create more imaginative municipal design advice, specific façade requirements in different neighborhoods, or even an officially-blessed vision of what we want our communities to look like, sufficiently flexible to evolve alongside cultural values.
At best, a city’s architecture expresses its residents’ awake dreams, and inspires joy or at least pleasurable or challenging thoughts. Better that than sleeping through the construction of our future.