On Making Documentaries
I like projects that teach me things I never expected to learn.
When the economy melted in 2008, I realized that I could take a rest from my practice’s residential focus. The downturn called for something different. I had time to look at what was happening around me. I had done movie projects before, so I found myself with an impulse to make documentaries on architectural subjects.
HERE1: The Opposition of Two New Museums in Golden Gate Park was released in the summer of 2009. I was intrigued by the uncomfortable way that the Renzo Piano-designed California Academy of Sciences and the Herzog de Meuron-designed de Young Museum face each other across the park’s Music Concourse. By asking a simple set of questions of both buildings, the film reveals their profound differences in terms of how people move through them, how they were built, and how they present themselves, inside and out. I realized that these differences stem from fundamentally dissimilar conceptions of a museum.
If these two buildings were located outside the park elsewhere in San Francisco, we would feel their immensity. But in the park, they are scaleless. I wondered how they ended up in Golden Gate Park. And I then realized that this question was itself a compelling design story, perhaps more interesting than that of the new museums.
HERE2: A History of Golden Gate Park was released in the spring of 2010. A popular film, it tells the story of the park’s remarkable creation from sand. It describes the impact of the famous San Franciscans who funded it, then used it as their playground. Not until the elite built their country estates after the Great Earthquake did the park shift to serve the full general public.
I grew up in the Berkeley flatlands, down the street from a then run-down house that was the first home Bernard Maybeck designed for his family—the first house on the block. A decade after the 1906 earthquake, he designed a series of unique houses in San Francisco, each defining its neighborhood. HERE3: The San Francisco Houses of Bernard Maybeck was largely completed before the Golden Gate Park films, yet I delayed its release until the summer of 2010, feeling that something was missing. Making the Park films helped me realize that Maybeck was creating a series of archetypes, each crafted to the specific conditions of its particular, San Francisco hillside site.
HERE4: Life Lived Through Architecture, released in the fall of 2011, stemmed from film clip edits removed from HERE3. Maybeck moved his family into a new house up in the Berkeley Hills that was later destroyed in a major hillside fire. He subsequently redesigned it as a cluster of small cottages set in a hillside garden. This progression made me think of the famous second home of Frank Gehry, in Santa Monica, and his projected third home in Venice, California. Both Maybeck and Gehry came from middle-class backgrounds, growing up in vibrant subcultures—Maybeck in Greenwich Village and Gehry in 1940s Los Angeles. Their homes reflect their architectural investigations and the growth of their families. I knew of the progression of Frank Lloyd Wright homes. And I threw myself into the home histories of Thomas Jefferson and Philip Johnson. Jefferson and Johnson both came from wealthy, upper-class families and lived unconventional lives. Jefferson’s Poplar Forest plantation, his remodeled Monticello, and Johnson’s homes in Manhattan, New Canaan, and Big Sur represent post midlife conceptions of “home” that form a trajectory from places for intense public engagement to places for contemplation and private life.
HERE5: Eradicated Landscape, released in the summer of 2012, arose from my curiosity about San Francisco’s South of Market district, my own neighborhood since 2000. Why were so many of the buildings tilted and sunk into the ground? I researched and lectured on the creation of developable land from the sand dunes and waterways that made up SoMA and adjoining districts—a complex story of late 19th-century debauchery, mass labor, gold, greed, technological progress, and American domestic and foreign policy. HERE5 is a companion piece to HERE2. While Golden Gate Park was being created out of the western end of the great San Francisco dune field, SoMA was emerging from the eastern end—an industrial district and slum that was largely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire.
HERE6: The 1871 San Francisco City Hall will be the latest film in this series. The collapse of the City Hall during the 1906 earthquake is widely assumed to reflect shoddy construction and political corruption, but in fact it was conceived at a time when city government was viewed more idealistically. The City Hall was designed as a monument to the entire city. Its public entrance was built on axis with the emerging, working-class South of Market district, which it faced and towered over. An elegant carriage entrance to the north was provided for the upper classes on Nob Hill and along Van Ness Avenue. A minor food riot that broke out at its groundbreaking foretold the intense class and race struggles that would engulf the city after the late 1870s. An effective coup d’état following the 1906 earthquake ended the rule of labor politicians who were independent of the established parties. The buildings and plazas of the post-earthquake Civic Center manifest the values of the local, state, and national Democrats and Republicans who regained power in that coup.
Making these documentaries has taught me that people are more interested in landscapes than buildings. HERE2 and HERE5 are my most popular films, because they show how nature underlies the city. I think that stories about buildings are too close to home—buildings draw closer to the intimacies of our lives. We invest our immediate hopes in the places where we live and work; the stories of buildings remind us that hope is fragile and uncertain. The role of broken marriages in the progression of houses designed by Jefferson, Johnson, and Wright is potentially disturbing. Landscapes are less personal, less our story.