On Urban Design and Urban Identity

Interesting article in today’s SF Chron on the architectural face of San Francisco. Of particular note:

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, impossible-to-generalize self-interests.”
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.”

San Francisco does have a special kind of NIMBYism, doesn’t it? An exclusivity that’s open to anyone – so long as you join us in our effort to eschew progress in the name of “preservation.” What is it about this city that breeds such high-brow navel-gazing? That sacrifices the needs of the many for the needs of the lone tree? Many criticize Los Angeles for its simulacra-based landscape – but is SF any different? What old charm our we protecting, what lost sense of place is saved by badly wired, drafty, energy inefficient, seismically unsound wood structures lacking closets, basic amenities or any really hope for actual salvation from eventual disintegration?
There are those buildings sacred to us, worthy of protection – a cathedral, an iconic pyramid, a bridge. But there are others, while lovely, that risk holding us hostage to an inhospitable past on a spit of land that otherwise prides itself on birthing the next cutting-edge policy or product.
I love my hidden, old victorian-lite house, with its yellow front, faded teal sides, and complete lack of insulation. But if we stymie architectural advances, we won’t have a chance to get past the ugly ideas that are sure to mark periods of transition. I want to see what comes next and I want to see it built next door.

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