Reactionary San Francisco
Our attachment to Victorians may keep us from moving forward
- by Carol Lloyd, special to SF Gate
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
"Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design" is not
the sort of book one expects to ignite uncomfortable self-reflection. A
new semiacademic collection of 11 essays, each focusing on a particular
city or type of city -- from Barcelona to Brasilia, from Philadelphia to
the Asian megacities -- it's a fascinating look at the diverse and
tangled nature of urban design. But, for this San Franciscan, it was
also an unsettling mirror of my own unexamined biases regarding
architecture and urban planning.
Why? Well, in addition to a piece about Chicago superblocks by Sarah
Whiting and Rem Koolhaas' essay on Atlanta's inner-city suburbs, there
is one chapter about San Francisco by Mitchell Schwarzer, an
architectural historian and the chair of visual studies at the
California College of the Arts, that paints a provocative picture of
yours truly and almost everyone else I know in San Francisco.
In a word, we are reactionaries.
Us? We who occupy this fertile breeding ground of free speech, gay
rights, avant-garde arts, futuristic technology, alternative families,
third-party politics, the organic-food revolution? Call us crazy, or
call us dewy-eyed liberals -- but reactionaries?
That just doesn't make sense.
But when Schwarzer was asked to write an essay on the most salient
aspect of San Francisco's urban design and architecture in the last 25
years, that was the first thing he thought of. "It was not a building or
a local architect or a famous school of architecture," he told me over a
recent lunch. "It was a climate of reaction."
In arguing that the City has gone overboard to preserve the past --
specifically, our 19th-century and early-20th-century past -- Schwarzer
cites controversies over a few recent buildings in San Francisco, many
of which were tamed to conform to existing context. He recalls arguing
with neighborhood activists who protested the new de Young Museum
because its proposed tower was too high (they were successful in getting
it lowered 16 feet) and that its glass-and-copper skin would not fit
into the park's natural setting -- though, of course, glass reflects,
and copper turns green over time as its surface oxidizes, and,
therefore, both materials would fit into a green setting far better than
many more traditional building materials, not to mention that the park
is not exactly "natural," given that it's a primarily a bunch of
nonnative trees planted on a sand dune.
"They wanted the building to look like the [Spanish Revival] building,
which is really pretty mediocre," he said, shaking his head.
Schwarzer doesn't focus solely on the overzealous neighbor who haunts
planning meetings. He believes the dumbing down of architecture in San
Francisco is written into the Urban Design Element in the City's master
plan (what he characterizes as the bible of San Francisco's
architectural philosophy) and other planning documents such as the
Downtown Plan. Thus, when Koolhaas' proposed stainless steel Prada
building did not match the existing cornices and replicate the size of
the windows of the surrounding early 20th-century buildings in Union
Square, the S.F. Planning Department recommended disapproval. (The
City's Planning Commission ultimately passed the proposal, but the
project was stalled because of the economy.)
"Even worse," he writes, "[planners] stated that the proposed building
stood out in excess of its public importance -- whatever that means.
Effectively, the planners were saying that new architecture in a
conservation district established because of its prior inventiveness
must not be inventive or conspicuous."
But is that really such a big deal? So, Prada has a difficult time
passing plans for its fancy new shoe store. Does it matter? It might if
it indicates an unwillingness to allow the City to grow and change, thus
risking becoming fossilized as a quaint town where every little detail
must conform to arbitrary rules of the past. If we think of a metropolis
as a teeming constellation of ideas, images and movements that together
form the material life of urban culture, then, by limiting the look of
our buildings, might we also be limiting our ideas and even our actions?
Ironically, when Schwarzer disparages San Francisco's planning
guidelines, he is in part critiquing himself. In the early 1980s, he was
one of the city planners responsible for writing the Downtown Plan,
which marked 500 significant buildings for historical preservation but
also, in Schwarzer's words, "went too far" by telling architects how to
design and by imposing antiquated architectural shapes such as cornices
and bay windows on any new projects. "I was partly to blame," he told
me, although he is proud about helping preserve hundreds of historical
buildings. "I look back with regret and some shame."
Of course, as Schwarzer acknowledges, San Francisco's institutionalized
fear of new development sprang from an era when there was plenty to be
afraid of: During the 1960s, there were plans to raze whole
neighborhoods to make way for massive generic developments and
crisscross the city with multiple new freeways that would have traversed
residential neighborhoods and Golden Gate Park. In other words, we were
in danger of becoming just like any ugly U.S. city with megadevelopments
on superblocks threaded with highways. The fight against such "urban
renewal" galvanized a generation of activists in the wake of the
free-speech and antiwar movements, giving rise to such institutions as
the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
But, for Schwarzer, this healthy opposition to big development has since
calcified into an unhealthy habit of opposing everything different. "No
one wants buildings that will overwhelm the rest of the City," he says,
acknowledging that it's important to be sensitive to the context. "But
it's gone overboard." Schwarzer hopes the future of San Francisco
planning can move beyond the idea of the past pitted against the future.
"The past was seen by modernists as an impediment to the future, while
postmodernists turned the tables to recast the future as an impediment
to the past," he writes. "Ultimately, aren't these visions opposite
sides of a coin?"
Complaints about a city of NIMBY activists and a dearth of cutting-edge
architecture are not new. San Francisco, and, to a lesser extent, the
entire Bay Area, has long been notorious in architectural circles as a
place where it is difficult to get anything built, much less something
with a design that takes risks. Reflecting this lackluster reputation,
"The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture," a massive
coffee-table book that presented what the editors deemed to be the
"1,052 most important structures of the past five years," chose only one
from San Francisco (for the record, Folsom Street's Yerba Buena Lofts).
But it was Schwarzer's historical perspective on our present predicament
that made me reassess my own unexamined biases, and, more uncomfortably,
what they may say about me.
First, a confession: I'm writing this sentence from a little Victorian
worker cottage, where I recently redid the "fake" siding facade with --
you got it -- "authentic" crown molding. Just why I thought it worth ten
grand to re-create an aesthetic popular when women wore corsets and were
confined after being diagnosed with hysteria, when an oligarchy of
wealthy railroad and logging families ruled the City, when police shot
at workers attempting to unionize, I'm not sure. My neighbors, being
good, progressive San Franciscans, all registered their approval and
expressed relief that my husband and I didn't do anything crazy. We want
to keep this little village street feeling old and quaint; we want the
details to remain the same.
My appreciation for this era of architecture, my bias for context over
innovation, doesn't end with my own house, either. When I see old
Victorian buildings torn down, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. When
I see modernist homes erected in old neighborhoods, I often find myself
complaining about the bad design. When developers camouflage the facades
of a large, new building to make it look like a series of smaller
buildings by incorporating multiple variable bay windows (a popular
strategy for getting a big building approved), I note the illusion
approvingly. I even recall following the de Young and Prada
controversies and feeling miffed that they had to change anything at all.
What's with our love affair with early-20th-century buildings?
When I asked a few friends, I got a wonderful array of answers -- all of
which I agree with, even as I realize they're premised on shaky assumptions.
"They're better built."
Thinking that they are better made than a prefab home of the 1970s is
one thing, but current construction -- especially with green building
materials and improved energy efficiency -- does have many benefits over
wood frames and brick foundations.
"They have more character."
Victorians were not, as many San Franciscans assume, made with
individuality in mind. We may see character in them now -- but,
initially, they were tract homes, built with factory-made parts, row
after row raised in tribute to mass conformity.
"Victorians are a signature of San Francisco."
Now they are, but, originally, they weren't an indigenous style; they
were designed in imitation of styles common in East Coast cities,
re-created in redwood and painted gray and black to look like stone. If
we now associate them with groovy alternative lifestyles, perhaps it's
because they used to be inexpensive housing. After all, Victorians were
the home of choice for many hippies, and every generation since then has
chosen them as the staging ground for their bohemianism. But those days
are long gone -- funky old Victorians and Edwardians sell for a premium
because the hippies grew up and became bourgeois and fueled a market in
"It's become the sound bite for San Francisco," Schwarzer says of
Victorian architecture, adding that inside many humble, old-fashioned
Victorian/Edwardian homes boast cutting-edge interiors with new kitchens
and modern art, but the same people who reside in them are loath to
allow the face of the City to change. "The question is, Do we want to
become a museum?" Schwarzer adds. "Do we want to become like Venice?
Venice took 1,000 years to decide to stop [new development]. We're not
an old city."
What's at the heart of our conservative architectural values? For
Schwarzer, it's a sign that we have grown too precious about our
surroundings. "It's a suburban attitude grafted into the city," he says.
"Suburbs are about control of the environment. And that's what this is
But isn't it also that we have more to preserve than, say, Los Angeles
"Old cities in Europe are not threatened by new architecture," says
Schwarzer. "There's no city as bad as San Francisco."
Schwarzer is right when he says that, in contrast to our political and
personal liberalism, when it comes to architecture and urban planning,
we are deeply conservative. We don't embrace change. In fact, we
actively resist it -- even when it means building more affordable
housing or putting a house on an empty lot or changing the facade of a
The larger question is, Does that really matter? Can't all the radical
thinkers and futuristic inventors and creative problem solvers hole up
in Victorian flats in their village-like neighborhoods and continue to
think big thoughts and invent a better world? That's hard to say. If you
believe, as the Situationists did, that urban design is the
infrastructure on which all other social innovation is constructed, then
the answer would be no. A Prada building may not reinvigorate our
society, but it wouldn't be keeping everything the same, either.
And, if we assume that what distinguishes San Francisco is that a
majority of us want to make the world a better place, is hanging around
the S.F. Planning Department the way to do it? Or are we deluding
ourselves, imagining that we've stayed "active" while, really, we've
become activists for property rights, lifestyle luxuries and other
Schwarzer doesn't go so far as to draw such conclusions, but he does
connect our current state of architecture to a culture of affluence and
individuality. "In San Francisco, the movement toward realization has
reached such heights of self-indulgence that it is leveling the creation
of inspiring urban design," Schwarzer writes. "Here, on the western
shores of the North American continent, the American dream has taken a
turn into activism bred on affluence and adversity .... These
not-so-laid-back Californians, who stymie architectural innovation in
this once innovative city, defend a medley of values premised on
history, esthetics, cultural politics and, most of all,
In other words, there is a thin line between idealistic people who want
to build the perfect world and the those who want to simply preserve an
ideal lifestyle. Or, as Schwarzer summed it up at a recent lecture at a
meeting of the San Francisco Urban Planning and Research Association
(SPUR), "People come here intentionally, and they want to fight to
preserve it. They shift their sights from fighting Vietnam or a highway
to the building that is shading their lemon tree."
Although I don't really fit Schwarzer's description, I feel the sting of
it in my hunger for an urban lifestyle that is quaint and gentle and,
yes, sweet. But this isn't my entitlement; this is a luxury -- and a
distinctly conservative one, at that. On an individual basis, it's a
natural enough desire, but I can't help but wonder, if this becomes the
essence of our built environment, what will we miss out on?
Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about Bay Area real estate.
She teaches a class on buying your first home in the Bay Area, and
another class based on her best-selling career counseling book for
creative people, "Creating a Life Worth Living." For more information,