instant/instance city

Catalytic events in the life of a city and the building of urban memory

On Friday, hundreds of thousands of people converged on Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt to celebrate the Warriors' 2015 NBA Championship. There were the athletes and their entourages, hard-core fans who camped out, those who just joined the winning band-wagon and everyone along the spectrum in between crowding the streets with an exuberant energy on a beautiful day.  The streets had not been miraculously repaved the day before (sadly the potholes on my street were still there), buildings hadn't changed over night but something in the air was markedly different. 

On the first Friday of every month, thousands gather in the Uptown area and beyond for the open-gallery-cum-street-party which started as an Art Murmur. Likewise, the scene is populated with the artists and their supporters, those in "the know" and those simply out for a party or a nice evening out. The event is in some ways like a reliable friend that you know will be there and could bring fun and surprise when we decide to go out.

Weekly, hundreds turn out at our local Farmers Markets, movies at the Paramount, and concerts at the Fox. The list of collective experiences big and small in our shared urban environment goes on. 

This is a landscape where countless unremarkable events occur- walks around the lake, the comings and goings of the work day, the running of mundane errands. And yet, this is the same terrain where we have also seen widespread demonstration, civil disobedience, rioting, vandalism, injury and death in the streets, police helicopters grazing the night air above. If these walls could talk, as the saying goes....

As an Architect, I like to reflect upon the life of the city, the times at which it is changed temporarily or forever, when a moment portends future progress or challenges, when, as citizens, we revel or sometimes recoil at what happens in our midst with wonder, angst, pride or feelings in between. 

Open[ing the] Source [of] Architecture

Cultivating the field for design

Genius, Flash of Inspiration, Masterstroke - these are rarely the routes to great architecture, but are persistent notions. They harken to an imagined narrative, Starchitects of the past and present, and embody for us what it means to be creative. Yet they do nothing to nurture creativity or harness its potential.  

How it is

The term 'Architect' has been co-opted to describe everyone from a software designer to an evil mastermind. Common complaints among Architects are that people do not understand what we do, people do not value what we do, and we are unable to do our best work because of the realities of practice.

How it was

Master builder, trusted advisor, licensed design professional, paid consultant - gradually the regard for Architects and the Architect’s work has eroded. Yet study the history of the world and we may understand the built environment as a record of the development of civilization, the most direct translation of our values into physical form.

From ancient times to modern day, we designate special places with important sites and build them from sturdy materials. We preserve places of historical significance or cultural meaning for our posterity and ourselves. We attempt to capture the spirit of our times and our hopes for the future. There is tremendous legacy and meaning in Architecture. 

How it could be

The culture around design can be positive, engaging and meaningful; inclusive rather than exclusive. We need a professional community in which we readily exchange knowledge, and instinctively collaborate; where we mentor, challenge, and encourage each other to be better practitioners. We need to seek out more opportunities to share our experiences, creative process and thinking so that we may make what we do more transparent to more people. We need to apply ourselves to traditional and non-traditional 'projects' alike so that, instead of a shrinking definition of Architecture and the Architect's work, we would have increasing relevance and demand. 




The city as palimpsest

What can we learn from the reading of the built environment as a physical record?

Oakland is a study of the old, the new and of reinvention. Just think of the physical traces left by Sears, Woolworth’s and I Magnin and then turn your attention to the Cathedral of Christ the Light, places like the Paramount or Fox Theaters, or the vitality of Art Murmur as a monthly albeit temporary urban atmosphere.  

Differing visions between what could and can be has resulted in many artifacts in the urban landscape. To name only a few, consider the excavated city block for the as-yet-unrealized 601 City Center, the empty lot for the promised tower at 12th and Broadway, the Progressive Architecture winning yet unrealized dream of a downtown mall that provided the site for City Center as it exists today, the money and hope that has been invested into Jack London Square over the years.

From it’s namesake trees less visible today, to railroads, to jazz, natural and man-made disasters, the port and national and international commerce, urban renewal and public policy, the city has a rich past from which present decisions can be deliberately and thoughtfully made.

Does the discussion of Oakland’s present and future rest upon a shared destiny with San Francisco, analogy with other American cities, or gravitate towards more general socio-economic, political, design and planning notions needed to address an increasing and increasingly urban global population?

As an architect, I wonder what new stories and what old stories will dwell together within the ever fleeting moment? What will result from the continuous writing, re-writing, reading and re-reading of this city? What are the ‘opportunity sites’ within this urban terrain that will catalyze the future? 

Adaptive Re-use enlivens and preserves

Adaptive re-use can re-purpose & protect existing buildings for new uses in memorable ways. 

Having traveled abroad, I am struck by how new our cities are. Our urban environments are constantly being re-created with mixed results. What wasn't that old to begin with is soon cleared away for something even newer. In that context, the American preservation movement starting in the mid-20th century was and is a critical response to the loss or risk of loss of much of our architectural heritage. However, what we don't see as much in the US, as in other parts of the world, is the creative and intensive on-going use of older buildings which often leads to the juxtaposition of old and new in intentional, adept and inspiring ways that is catnip for us architects!

A recent piece in SPUR's The Urbanist celebrates adaptive re-use in Oakland. One of my previous projects with Anne Phillips Architecture, Girls Inc's new Simpson Center for Girls, is one of the buildings featured in the article. Check it out! 

Urban Field Notes: Old Buildings, New Uses

Architecture and Urban Design at home

As an Oaklander for over a decade, the current state of my city is a source of both pride and anxiety.

As an Architect, I believe that the city we build and build upon is a representation of us. The territory created by our streets, open spaces, homes, businesses and civic buildings presents us with a landscape charged with potential; potential to have real places of meaning, authentic places that are not solely based upon transplanted precedents, environments that can support and indeed hinder how or how well we choose to live.

Local pride

What’s not to love? Home prices and rents that are still “affordable” by Bay Area standards, the sweet spot in terms of weather between the fog and chilly summers in San Francisco or the seasonal extremes of heat and cold further east, and a thriving food and arts scene- the list of Oakland’s ‘draws’ goes on. On the one hand, the Town [finally!] looks attractive to new development. On the other, the fits and starts of the past [thankfully!} have sheltered and preserved some of our distinctive buildings and neighborhoods. It’s an exciting time for me to live in Oakland, both witnessing and participating in its maturation as a city as an architect and as a citizen. 

Anxiety by the bay

Is new development making Oakland less Oakland? Why do we continue to have a bad rap? Historically, why- when Oakland has been the hub of our regional public transportation and freeway systems- hasn’t more of everything happened here? For those considering to invest here, is it still a gamble based on potential ROI, crime, foot traffic, or other factors? If we build it, will they come? Will people still shop, do business, and recreate elsewhere if given the choice? Choices are being made about the future of our city, and the results are already materializing. As I look around I have reasons both to celebrate and worry.