“8 Octavia marks the new heart of San Francisco and signals a fresh approach to urban living. Through its award-winning design… 8 Octavia cultivates a dynamic, connected lifestyle tailored to the city’s active culture.”
– From the developer’s website.
It’s a struggle to find anyone who likes 8 Octavia. If the building comes up in conversation, the subject quickly moves on. People don’t want to talk about it. Like with many other new buildings, it’s as if everybody knows the game is over and we lost.
Unlovable architecture is popping up everywhere here in San Francisco – and perhaps where you live too. Monolithic, sterile, alienating buildings are turning the city into a disjointed landscape of oversized objects.
A quietly disapproving populace mutters about the aggressive ugliness of modern buildings. Meanwhile, the architecture profession walls itself off from public opinion with opaque bureaucratic processes, glossy industry magazines, and self-congratulatory design awards.
When the profession does have to engage with the public, developers employ “archi-speak” sales pitches to obscure what for most of us is clear: Modern architecture is degrading our environment.
Those who created the Westerfield House didn’t have to justify their creation with seductive sales pitches. The building is clearly beautiful. Nothing more needs to be said.
Archi-speak is a powerful selling tool, not just for specific projects but more broadly for the modern industrial architectural mode of production which is blanketing the landscape with unlovable buildings. But, despite developers’ best efforts, the truth lurks below the misleading archi-speak. If we read carefully, we can see what’s really being said and protect ourselves from archi-speak’s seductive prose.
So, let’s visit three recent San Francisco projects and decode the archi-speak that sold these buildings to the public…
1. Vida – 2558 Mission Street
What the developer says (link) (my interpretation in square brackets, as with the other buildings below)
“From the bold, vibrant colors [This language is exemplary of the simplistic cartoonish concepts that modern architecture uses to sell its creations to the public] to the way light playfully dances [This is meaningless fancy language designed to numb our critical minds] across its stunning façade, Vida echoes the rhythms [This is an abstract way of thinking. What matters isn’t abstract harmony but actual physical harmony with surrounding buildings, which is absent here] that those who love the [Mission] neighborhood know so well.
“The design melds with the adjacent Art Deco theater marquee to create a dramatic street presence and aesthetic [A common selling point for most modern architecture is drama, which is leading to an incoherent jumble of buildings. Drama should be reserved for important buildings of a civic nature]. Come a little closer to the building and you’ll notice a deliberate vertical rhythm [Developers love talking about rhythm, which is usually shorthand for lifeless repetition] to Vida – echoed in both the neighboring marquee and the setbacks on the upper two floors.”
Coming unexpectedly upon Vida one day, I was struck by how ridiculous it looks, especially with the absurd wavy window frames that look like piles of office boxes about to fall over. This, together with the industrial facade and jarring angles, adds up to a building that looks both sterile and farcical.
2. 1266 9th Avenue
What architecture commentator John King says (link)
“The landscaping by April Philips Design Works runs trumpet vine up the concrete between the openings, adding a constant shift of shadows [King’s review of this building is full of praise for inconsequential elements like this. The building’s shadows are irrelevant if the building itself is ugly]… Add those four oversize entry bays along the sidewalk, and the concrete form stands like some artifact from the industrial past [That’s a creative connection but it has no relevance to whether or not this building is likeable], a sturdy frame rather than a solid wall. The cafe within has a ceremonial scale [This is jargon that translates as “high ceilings” which, in this case, give the cafe a harsh alien feeling] with 20-foot-high ceilings.”
“Sometimes the conservative path is the right way to go. But take a long look at the 1200 block of Ninth Avenue. It’s a hodgepodge of nondescript structures [Certainly, most of the buildings on this street are drab; that’s no excuse for creating a building that’s even more ill-fitting] erected between 1904 and 2000. The concrete newcomer at 1266 Ninth adds a new element to the scene, no question. Instead of bogging down in deference to an idealized past, it keeps the Inner Sunset’s story moving forward in a fresh but thoughtful way.”
I’ve never met a person who likes this building, which is a short walk from my house. The first floor concrete box recalls World War II bunkers. The upper apartments look cheap and generic, featuring a synthetic-looking wood that passes for natural these days. John King is a great writer but his words amount to flowery yet empty justifications for the architectural industry’s excesses.
3. Linea – 8 Buchanan Street
What the developer says (link)
“Linea was born from the imagination of world-renowned architect [This is somebody who doesn’t live here and has no connection to the community] Bernardo Fort-Brescia as a way to bring a forward-thinking aesthetic to those who appreciate true modern design [In other words, in a short period of time this building is going to look dated]. With walls of glass framed by bold, geometric pillars, [Modern architects are obsessed with glass, as if more is better without any question] experience the city’s surrounding neighborhoods in luxury and style [Read: Inequality and quickly-dated aesthetics] like no other.”
The only way that this building distinguishes itself from the monolithic office buildings of the 1980s is through a gimmick: Grouping different sized boxes. Glass by itself has no character, it’s merely a window into space. So a building aiming for maximum glass coverage is not going to win hearts. This is a sad building to pass; biking by, I always speed up to get to the next building as quickly as possible.
One has to wonder how all this is allowed to continue. What has happened to the government departments that are supposed to look after our interests? Are our leaders blind to these bad buildings? Perhaps the seduction of money and the projects’ enormity have stunned us all into dumb acquiescence. As our cities continue to give ground to architecture without character, we’re conducting a grand-scale experiment with ourselves as the lab rats. If our buildings lack soul, what will happen to our own souls?
We’ve all heard the usual response: “Well, that’s just your opinion. It’s all subjective.” Sure, thinking that the sunset is beautiful is subjective too, but who doesn’t admire the sunset? When we free ourselves from cultural indoctrination and archi-speak, we generally agree on what’s beautiful and what’s not.
It’s time to renew our collective pursuit of a beautiful, harmonious, and life-enriching environment…
A special thanks to Steve Dombek for his input on this article.