Context and Compromise

Context and Compromise

by Evan Jacob, July 29, 2013

When considering new construction, much of the discussion among architects, building owners, city planners and neighbors in San Francisco focuses on the idea of fitting in. There is great concern that new construction will compromise the rich, established fabric of the city, so efforts are made to make sure the city and its neighborhoods evolve without degrading what is there. Of course, context is relative, especially where the image of or the memory of context meets its own reality. Also, the notion of contrast as a response to context has also been widely discussed. But this is often where the conversation ends and a conclusion has been reached. New construction must fit in, and what’s left is to determine how literal one’s response should be.

So what are the results? Has the swing away from the destructive urban renewal projects of the mid-century saved the city? One could easily argue that, yes, we have preserved much of our urban heritage while allowing for sustainable growth. We have not suffered another UN Plaza, Japan Center or Embarcadero Freeway, and yet have provided for, at least in part, growing demands for living, work space and leisure. When we believed that new was always better than old, we destroyed architectural treasures to make room for newer, often less inspired buildings. Today, old is always better than new, so our city is becoming a time capsule, a cheapened caricature of itself, but with wifi.

Perhaps this is why nobody seems to be happy about how San Francisco is evolving. Neighbors passionately resist development. Developers complain about an onerous entitlements process too costly and too easily derailed by public comment. To mitigate these forces, the architecture itself is often the physical manifestation of compromise, but one where everyone is mildly disappointed rather than mildly pleased. Functional and often suitable, but ultimately unremarkable. I think we can do much better.

The Hills Brothers Coffee building along the Embarcadero is a beautiful, honest structure (left), but each subsequent building built since (middle and right) is a less and less inspired attempt to fit in with the original.

San Francisco is and always has been a boom town. More so than other western US cities, it continues to embrace the Wild West ideology, a magnet for opportunity, experiment, and deviance. While a bit calmer and blander than the 1850’s (nobody gets Shanghai’d anymore, thankfully) or even the 1980’s (the Dead Kennedys are squabbling over profits), the city still swells with new ventures in search of fortune. Historically, these swells shaped the city. Hills were flattened and neighborhoods reimagined to accommodate the latest growth spurt. But after the failures of urban renewal, the physical city became self-conscious, then precious. The city was severed from its spirit, and we began to celebrate our accomplishments instead of creating new ones.

Compromise and literal response to context may have been necessary to understand and embrace our past, but this movement has reached its zenith. Actually, it reached its peak about twenty years ago. It is possible to create new, remarkable architecture that doesn’t destroy historical treasures, but it is not necessary to do so by acquiescing.  I believe a better way to respond to context in San Francisco is to reconnect with the city’s crazy boom town spirit, and freely explore new, weird, innovative, and untested ideas. As a first step, it is critical to move the conversation beyond context, and embrace discourse that engages a wider conversation about architecture and the city.


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