Why the mediocrity of San Francisco architecture?

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Oct. 19 2006 7:29 PM

Edifice Complex

Why the mediocrity of San Francisco architecture?

While often viewed as one of the more picturesque, aesthetically pleasing American cities, San Francisco receives poor marks on its architecture from critic Witold Rybczynski in this latest Slate review. If nothing else, his assessment validates former Fray Editor kevinarno's general feeling that San Francisco belongs in Woody Allen's Academy of the Overrated (alongside Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, and Vincent van Gogh).

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Of course, not all Fraysters feel the same way. shortpinesBC would take "San Francisco's warm, quirky fun spaces" to the "steel and glass modernist" structures preferred by Rybczynski any day of the week. ahurvitz2 expresses befuddlement at the review:

I can't think of a city in the America with a more distinct and humane style of building than SF. The thousands of row houses, the elegant Art Deco apartment houses of Nob Hill, the Victorian houses, the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square, the Marina, Pacific Hts. Every section is unique and distinguished in its own particular way. I want to throw in the cable cars, Lombard Street, Haight-Asbury, Chinatown, the Transamerica Tower, Coit Tower, North Beach, the Embarcadero, Alcatraz....What do any of these lack?

Would you rather replace all of this with a rolled up and crushed piece of silver foil called Frank O. Gehry in your quest for architectural egoism?

For PoliticalEconomist, Rybczynski overlooks the importance of SF's fantastic Victorian houses:

Wonderful downtown skylines and daring museums are worthy public goals. But it is on residential streets that most of the citizens spend most of their time. Residential houses are the buildings amongst which we live, play, and take walks, leave in the mornings and return to in the evenings. Even mediocre skylines have a majesty about them that springs from sheer size alone; so long as there exists at least one or two signature buildings they need not all be fantastic. Museums are, for most, a pleasure for a rare Sunday afternoon once in a season. But a culture of beautiful houses spruces up our lives on a daily and intimate basis.

slyfox4 indicts Rybczynski for "daring to discuss the architecture of a city that was nearly destroyed 100 years ago and not even mention the distructive force that earthquakes have had on the city given the effect this must have had on whatever buildings did survive and the engineering of everything built since 1906."

design-junkie points to the absence of stellar design schools located in the city. DCPAlumni blames not the lack of architectural talent but overzealous community activists and fussy planning commissioners:

The fact is San Francisco is filled with activists of all stripes who believe they should put their stamp of approval on every building project in the City, whether it is the height or the architectural design. Therefore, controversial architectural designs are homogenized to make them more palatable to the throngs of activists and the results are often uninspiring designs…

… much of the City's architecture from the 1970's and the 1980's was uninspired because the City's zoning height and bulk limits created "refrigerator box" building envelopes which developers filled to the maximum extent possible. The Planning Commissioners of those decades failed to dictate quality architectural designs when they approved construction of the Downtown highrise office buildings and as a result the City's Downtown has some wonderful buildings designed and built in the first 50 years of the 20th Century and some really ugly, plain buildings built in the 1960's, 1970's and the 1980's.

Architect Cantor explains the difficulty of attracting "starchitects" to world-class cities:

Creating great architecture requires the developer to do more work, more research, spend more money on design fees, and take a risk. That's why you see great architecture coming to lesser know cities who need to compete in a less vibrant marketplace to stand out. Also, famous "starchitects" are [more] interested in changing a skyline of say St. Petersburg, Florida's downtown than in Tokyo or Sao Paolo where it would be more difficult due to the mass number of buildings.

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