1020Pine_PhotoByTimGriffith
1020 Pine, Kennerly Architecture; Photo Tim Griffith

Random Selection, or Intelligent Design?

 

Kennerly Architecture’s 1020 Pine, San Francisco, received a Merit Award for Architecture from the AIA California Council this fall. Justly so: it’s a handsome project. I won’t dwell on it here specifically—and I want to be clear that what follows is not directed at it. Rather, it offers an opportunity to articulate an objection to what I believe to be one of its implied premises. In the awards submittal text, the firm explains that, “Without resorting to mimicry, the building animates the street wall with quintessential San Francisco syntax.” True enough, and well done. But the implied premise, widely shared among our local colleagues, is that a contemporary “bay window” should in no case look like a bay window.

 

I understand the impulse: in a city that has been resistant to new building forms—although it would appear to be loosening up somewhat, much to the credit of Kennerly and other adventuresome firms—the bay window is the most concise and vivid emblem of that resistance.

 

But we should keep clear heads, however frustrated. Mere difference is not a positive value. Yet it is a tempting refuge. As we should have learned from the Cold War experience, it is easier to be against something—Communism, Victoriana—than to champion, critically and consistently, a positive alternative. It’s easier to agree that something is different from something else than to agree that it’s better.

 

Some years ago, Micha Bandini, then director of the Masters Program in History, Theory, and Criticism at the Architectural Association in London, presented the Lyda Ebert Lectures at Rhode Island School of Design. Her subject was “Better Than.” It is a telling thing that someone of her intellectual stature, situated at the epicenter of architectural exploration—for these were the days when Alvin Boyarsky was at the height of his influence as director of the AA—would feel it necessary to devote not one but three lectures to the proposition that “better than” should be considered a fundamental critical principle. One suspected that she recognized the futility of her argument, applying Colin Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force in a desperate attempt to knock sense into a discipline that had become too totally cool for school.

 

I most recently taught an architecture studio at UC Berkeley in the spring of 2007. It was a wonderful group of graduate students, summa cum laude from Smith and the like. Smart. I asked a few of them whether they believed that their work should be innovative, and they decidedly did. Asked what that meant, they were less decisive. It reminded me of a story that floated around the New England academies at about the same time Bandini was speaking at RISD. Linda Pollak (now of Marpillero Pollak Architects in New York) was directing Career Discovery at Harvard, and during a review a student was asked why he had done something in a particular way. He said, “I just wanted to be different.” “Different?” Pollak retorted, “Different? You haven’t even been the same yet!” Now, the Career Discovery program occurs earlier in one’s architectural education than 200b at Cal, but not much. Yet students there, as elsewhere, gather that they are meant to innovate right out of the blocks.

 

In his brilliant condensation of Southernness, “Heterosexism and Dancing,” Roy Blount, Jr. offers this extended quotation:

 

“You know what I want them to be like?” asks Albert Murray, speaking of the new generation of blacks in South to a Very Old Place. “Our prizefighters. Our baseball players. Like our basketball players. You know what I mean?

 “Then you’ll see something. Then you’ll see them riffing on history because they know history. Riffing on politics because they know politics. One of the main things that too many spokesmen seem to forget these days is the fact you really have to know a hell of a lot about the system in order to know whether you’re operating within it or outside it. . . . The difference between riffing and shucking is knowing the goddam fundamentals.”

 

When one doesn’t know—or doesn’t adequately consider—the fundamentals, one’s “innovations” are liable to be (I might say doomed to be) mere differences. We see way too much of mere difference in contemporary buildings. It is as if our profession were operating on the principle of natural selection: producing random mutations and seeing which ones will survive. Yet our skepticism of the idea of intelligent design in the natural world is no reason to eschew it in the architectural world. If we were mass-producing something, we might get away with it. Ben & Jerry’s can try this flavor and that flavor, and some of them—Cherry Garcia, say—will stick, while others won’t. (My money is not on their latest limited-batch flavor, Schweddy Balls.) But when you’re building one building at a time, some more deliberate method is in order.

 

One such method is that of type. Type is not a difficult idea, despite the obscure odes to it in the early editions of Oppositions. It is simply the notion that, over time, felicitous correspondences among spatial order, construction, and (loosely) use become embedded in repeated forms. An example is the basilica, whose nave and side aisles work equally well for masonry churches and wood frame barns. We all know the development of the masonry version, the emergence of the pier and clerestory out of the formerly dumb wall, the progressive opening up and skyward reach.

 

The San Francisco row house, too, is a type, a product of parcelization, zoning laws, lumber sizes, and—not insignificantly—the desires of its indwellers. Some of its features are clearly not optimized—the light wells, for example. The bay window, however, is pretty good. It combines a proper civic frontality with oblique views up and down the street. Its regularity suppresses the individuality of the house in favor of the collective space of that street. Inside, it forms a light-filled alcove, gently separated from the room. And it’s not hard to build.

 

It is not thereby sacred, but at the same time people’s affection for it is not degenerate. Any established, systematic pattern deserves respectful critical engagement. Too often in contemporary San Francisco, the bay window gets merely grudging accommodation of the zoning rules, overlaid with something—anything!—to make it different. That’s not good enough. What we need is a sober typological investigation of the bay window (and of the row house in its entirety). We need to get past the striking and sometimes beautiful individual expressions—like that seen from the street in 1020 Pine—and dig into the logic of transformation. It would be great to have a publication or exhibit that gathered together examples that offer transferable steps in a process of making bays that are better than, rather than merely different from, the traditional ones. Riffing, not shucking.

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