Four Poles in Five Blocks

On a short walk in my neighborhood this morning, I must have passed hundreds of poles: Light poles, utility poles, sign poles.

They do their jobs of holding up stuff but I noticed that they can do a lot more.

Here in just a few blocks, some upgrades:

knit pole

This Stop sign pole is across from a yarn store.

no more evictions2

Light pole as soap box.


This memorial pole shows up on my corner every year around this time.

It is for young Emily Dunn, hit by a bus at this intersection.

I’ve posted about it before: ad hoc monuments

pole dancers

These pole dancers are in a series of guerrilla pieces in the neighborhood. Bravo, somebody!


You can tell a lot about a city by its layout.  The arrangement of streets tells the history of a place.  If you look closely, you can see the story of slow growth from cramped forts to booming modern cities.  Or the evidence of evolution from farmland or prairie to grid.

There are the medieval European cities with their high walls and twisty narrow streets.  You can tell they grew organically, the buildings huddled together, defended by the ramparts.  They were designed by fear.


And not just in Europe: look at the Wall Street area in Manhattan:1847_Lower_Manhattan_mapWall Street’s wall was built in 1653, by African slaves, to keep out Indians.

As these towns grew, the modern parts became more open, optimistic.  B GRID

  It’s easy to pick out the romantic European patterns and the pragmatic American ones.urban-form_layout2-eSome people say that San Francisco is the most European of American cities.

It would be even more so if the post Earthquake plan by Daniel Burnham had been adopted: mission_burnham_close San Francisco’s layout ignores the hills and even water.1851MapThe heart of the Financial District was under San Francisco Bay.

The city exploded during the Gold Rush, and its exuberant disregard of obstacles is reflected in the streets.  And its culture to this day.

The patterns of our streets are our cities’ tree rings.  They are the fingerprints of the urban past.

And somewhere, on them: you.

Tell Me a Building

“The book will kill the building”.

That’s what a character says in Notre Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It takes place in medieval France and he is talking about how printing will replace the storytelling role of the cathedral. Cathedrals were pretty much the architecture – and the literature – of the day. They taught the illiterate masses the dogma of the Church through form and iconography.


holy cow


The whole buildings were designed to tell a story.

Of course, the book didn’t kill the building.  Books and buildings actually get along pretty well. In my office, I have stacks of books about buildings:

shelves 3

Books about individual buildings like the TWA Terminal or Pan Am building in New York, or the Chicago Tribune Tower, or groups of buildings like Rockefeller Center

I’ve got books on ruined buildings in Pompeii and Detroit, guidebooks to the architecture of Havana and Pyongyang, books about buildings by architect or by style.

secret lives

The thing is, by and large they aren’t really about buildings; they’re story books.

They tell about the people who had the ideas, took the risks, hit roadblocks and overcame them. Or about how a building was first used, then about what it became.

You can see every week in the real estate ads the stories brokers telll about buildings, how glamorous and carefree your life would be if only you lived here or there.

But the best stories about buildings are the ones we tell:

My parents were married in that hotel.

I had my first job in this building.

I met _____ in that building.

Zen and the Art of Billboards

Walking home from a class at the San Francisco Zen Center, I noticed this billboard.


And then this one:

breathe 2

They’re not like most billboards, whose job is to convince you of how much better your life would be if you drank this or went there or wore that.

My friend Felipe Dulzaides and I were able to put up a series of eight billboards, briefly, a few years ago, each with the intent to make the passerby pay attention to the location.

Each one featured some aspect of its site, suddenly huge: basketball backboards, parking lot stripes, surveillance camera, overhead wires.   They looked like these:




(These photos by Felipe Dulzaides)

In Zen practice there is something called a Koan, which is a question that you can’t answer using your everyday mind.   You ponder until something clicks.

This billboard, until recently at the corner of 17th and Mission Streets, is a good example:

17reasons w

Later it lost its “why” and became just “17 Reasons”.

Then it was taken down, as shown in this film: .

Now, the 17 Reasons and the Why have gone their separate ways. Maybe some day they will be reunited.

Here, perhaps the most Zen billboard of all:


The Client

Here is a salute to clients.   The ones who care about how a building works and what it looks like.

Image Clients like Eusebi Guell (1846 – 1918), who hired Antoni Gaudi to design his house:

ImageGuell owned a ceramic tile company, hence the skin.

 Or, closer to home, Phyllis Lambert (nee Bronfman), the daughter of the scion of the Seagram company who, at age 26, took charge of the design and construction of their landmark headquarters on Park Avenue.

ImageShe was living in Paris, studying sculpture, when she stepped in to hire Mies Van der Rohe and his sidekick Philip Johnson, to design the company’s new headquarters.   Then she moved back to NY and took a desk in their office.


 Her dad might have preferred something more baronial, old world and gentile.

Image Seagram Headquarters, Montreal

 From Paris she wrote:

 “You must put up a building that expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.  You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much for all people in New York and the rest of the world.”

ten-buildings-changed-america-7With its popular plaza, exquisite detailing, and public art, the Seagram Building is a landmark of modern architecture and urbanism.

Five years later came the Pan Am building, the largest commercial structure to date:

ImageThe client wasn’t Pan Am; they came in after construction had begun.  The clients were Grand Central Railroad (and its shareholders), the Diesel Construction Company, and twelve banks (six American and six British).  The design was by Emery Roth and Sons, with respectability provided by the more prestigious Walter Gropius and Pietro Bellushi.  Everybody hated the building, then and now.

Guell and Lambert were wealthy individuals, like Frank Woolworth, who famously paid out of pocket for the 1913 Woolworth building. They didn’t cut corners on costs: the Seagram building’s skin is bronze and it was at the time the most expensive skyscraper ever built.  Their buildings represented them to the world.

There is no more Seagram company, no more Woolworth’s and certainly no more Guell. But there are still clients.  Like Steve Jobs, who famously obsessed on the design details of Apple devices, Apple stores, Apple headquarters, and Pixar studios.

Most clients default to a handful of safe architects, the ones who can work with the neighbors and the planners and the investors and lenders and the clients to bring in safe buildings.

But I have seen mediocre architects do good buildings for good clients – and good architects do crappy buildings for bad clients. But it is the architect who gets the credit or the blame.

 So a toast to the client – the bold ones, the brave ones, but most of all the caring ones.

The Right Address

I had a billionaire client.
100% 1%.
And he made sure I knew about his jet and his household staff and his wife’s jewels.

One day I was waiting in his office to have lunch with him. An older Chinese guy came through, with a white guy following him taking notes. I overheard, “put statues of tigers facing the elevators. A bowl of water here. Move these chairs from the window.”
Feng Shui.

My first thought: this is medieval.
My second thought: But he’s the billionaire, not me.
Now I’ve got one of those hexagonal mirrors in my office window, but I can’t say I notice any difference in my luck.


That guy moved his office to 88 Kearny, to reap some of the luck from the number 8.

In Chinese superstition, that’s the number to hang your hat on.


From this morning’s paper.

The thing is, the Chinese word for 8 sounds a lot like發: “wealth”.

The Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/08.  At 8 minutes and 8 seconds after 8 PM.

New developments here in San Francisco seek 8s in their addresses:

8 Washington Street (which actually seems kind of cursed; opponents have put it on the November ballot),


8 Octavia, under construction.

and the grand slam of 888 Brannan Street.

I worked on the conversion of that building from warehouse to offices. My first client lost the building to the lender (not so lucky) and then I was hired by the new owner, who had better luck. It’s the new headquarters of Airbnb.

Not so lucky: the number 4, which sounds an awful lot like 死, “death”.

444 Market Street even changed its name, to 1 Front Street.

I attended the groundbreaking for a high rise that included a ritual involving tossing dyed rice in the air. Not so lucky for me, I got red spots on my jacket. The building was never built and the developer went bankrupt.

Maybe you’re more modern and not easily spooked. This stuff seems silly and not very modern.

ShanghaiMissingFloorsLike in this Shanghai elevator, skipping both the 13th and 4th floors

But honestly, wouldn’t this address make you uneasy?

13 w 13

The Street I Live On

The street I live on is only two blocks long, lined with Victorian houses.  It’s in about the geographic center of San Francisco,  There are street trees and front yards (unusual for San Francisco) and in the spring it smells of Jasmine.  The neighbors are a mix of old-timers and gentry, gay and not, with lots of kids.  Across the street, three households have joined their backyards so the kids have more play space.

Every year there’s a block party and some of the guys on the block play in a band.  A neighbor supplies beer he makes in his garage.

We even have an e-newsletter.  We let each other know of the need for volunteers for the street fair, about our current crime wave, and referrals for tree trimmers or handymen.

Lately the big topic has been the street itself. The City recently dug up a trench to replace the century-old water pipes.  Then they graded and laid asphalt down half the surface.

h street

Some of the neighbors are upset that only half the street was repaved.

From the newsletter, emails, and Facebook:

  • It’s the City of San Francisco that is to blame for this total balls up of a result.
  • Never heard of such a thing. Bizarre. God bless government.
  • The new paving looks ridiculous.
  • It’s this kind of bureaucratic SNAFU that makes no sense. Could no one even conceive of the whole picture?
  • I am speechless, this is the worst repaving work I have ever seen.
  • You don’t see 1/2 the streets paved in Pacific Heights or the Marina!

Our local representative wrote back that the other half will be paved. So maybe it’s temporary.

Honestly, in the 20 years I’ve lived on this block I never paid any attention to the surface of the street.  Until now.

street splat1

It’s got some great splats.

street plants

Plants can survive.  Amazing.

manhole 2

Something’s under there.

street text2

There is cryptic text.


It’s patched.

I love my street.  But this isn’t about the geography or the architecture or the landscaping or the people of my street.  It’s about the street: pitted, scarred, faded, pocked, scratched and patched.

And yours?  Take a look.

The Cities Where Things Are Born

Your sneakers.

The plastic spoon that came with your soup.

The zipper in your pants.

All the stuff at the dollar store.

Your smartphone.

Just about everything advertised in magazines.

What do they have in common?


They are yours only on their way to the landfill.

And they were almost certainly made in China. There, they make the products we buy – but first they make the cities that make them.

Sonaxia City makes 350 million umbrellas a year.

1/3 of the world’s socks are made in Datang.

Chenghai is the City of Toys, with more than 5,000 factories.

40% of the world’s neckties are from Shengzou and 70% of the world’s cigarette lighters are born in Wenzhou.

Buttons: Qiaotou.


These factory towns sprout pretty fast.

Here, a description from National Geographic:

“At 2:30 in the afternoon, the bosses began designing the factory. The three-story building they had rented was perfectly empty: white walls, bare floors, a front door without a lock.

On the first floor, we were joined by a contractor and his assistant. There was no architect, no draftsman; nobody had brought a ruler or a plumb line. Instead, Boss Gao began by handing out 555-brand cigarettes. He was 33 years old, with a sharp crewcut and a nervous air that intensified whenever his uncle was around. After everybody lit up, the young man reached into his shoulder bag for a pen and a scrap of paper.

First, he sketched the room’s exterior walls. Then he started designing; every pen stroke represented a wall to be installed, and the factory began to take shape before our eyes. He drew two lines in the southwest corner: a future machine room. Next to that, a chemist’s laboratory, followed by a storeroom and a secondary machine room. Boss Wang, the uncle, studied the page and said, “We don’t need this room.”

They conferred and then scratched it out. In 27 minutes, they had finished designing the ground floor, and we went upstairs. More cigarettes. Boss Gao flipped over the paper.

“This is too small for an office.”

“Put the wall here instead. That’s big enough.”

“Can you build another wall here?”

In 23 minutes, they designed an office, a hallway, and three living rooms for factory managers. On the top floor, the workers’ dormitories required another 14 minutes. All told, they had mapped out a 21,500-square-foot (2,000 square meters) factory, from bottom to top, in one hour and four minutes.”

Three months later the factory was producing bras.

Here are the photos from the article:

These factories are cities, with hospitals, schools, huge dormitories, internet cafes, banks, TV stations, and fire departments. Foxconn City, the Taiwanese-owned facility where iphones are cranked out, has 420,000 workers. It’s in Shenzen, which grew from a fishing village of 280,000 to a city of 14 million in 30 years. Shenzen is in the Pearl River Delta, established as an anything-goes trade district in 1980. The Delta has 200,000 factories. With the loosening of trade, foreign investment, and mobility regulations, 30 million rural Chinese picked up and moved to these factory cities.


Now, escalating land prices, increasing environmental protection, and increasing competition from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other regions within China have led to abandonment.

china polluted factory

According to “Factory Towns of South China, an Illustrated Guidebook”:

“The 2008 financial crisis saw a hollowing out of 600,000 workers from the Pearl River Delta at one stage. Smaller towns formed with more than 75% of migrant worker residents would be transformed into ghost towns overnight… One factory owner even imagined his factory to sit on a boat, so that it could sail from country to country depending on minimum wage fluctuations. ”

These cities are like the products they make: cheap and disposable.

Let’s go back and visit that bra factory:

“The former Yashun factory was unlocked. Inside, bra rings were strewed everywhere— bent rings, dirty rings, broken rings. There were crumpled cigarette packages and used rolls of tape. An empty diaper bag. A wall calendar frozen at November 22. A good luck charm with Mao Zedong’s face on one side and a bodhisattva on the other. And throughout the dormitories, on the white plaster walls, graffiti had accumulated over the months. Next to his bed, one worker had listed numbers: winning lottery combinations.”

Modern Design: The kind you don’t bring home to mother

Who doesn’t like to look at modern design – the sleek lines, the irony, the minimalist clarity.  So cool.  So clean. What Tom Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus to Our House, called

“ the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all”.

But we have a love/hate relationship with it.

My late Uncle Stanley was an architect and he lived in a modern apartment house in Manhattan. My Aunt Doris and my grandmother lived in the same building. And so did Marcel Breuer; so you know it was modern.  Modern as it was, you’d go up the elevator past the wallpaper of birds and flowers into my grandmother’s Victorian parlor.

Here’s a house my uncle designed in 1960 in Cincinnati.   Image

It was even reviewed in Domus, the Italian design and architecture magazine.

Here’s what Lynn Gordon, who grew up in the place, wrote:

 “If modernism = minimalism and simplicity, then family = clutter and entropy.”

Her article is entitled, “What Was Dad Thinking?”


“The living room with its cork floor was off-limits for play.”

Many modern homes aren’t really…. domestic. They’re “machines for living”. But who wants to live in a machine?


I remember a dinner party at the home of local modernist architect where the living room was like a doctor’s waiting room.  In East Germany.

An icon of modern architecture is La Maison de Verre, The House of Glass, in Paris by Pierre Chareau.


We visited once and met the girl who lived in the house, a descendent of the gynecologist who had commissioned it. She was jumping rope in the courtyard.  In French we asked what it’s like to live there and in French she answered:  “C’est triste”.  “It’s sad”.

For a great source of miserable looking modern design victims, you can’t do any better than the website Unhappy Hipsters  and their book, It’s Lonely in the Modern World. Their team captions photos from Dwell and other design magazines. In their impeccable homes, they all look triste.


Pensive glances. Effortless ennui. It all takes practice.(Photo: Andrew Meredith; Dwell)

Sure, these places look beautiful.  But as Rick James sang, they’re not the kind you take home to mother.




You wouldn’t use the juicer to juice anymore than you would want to linger on this chair.  That’s not what they’re about.  Like so much modern design, they’re to be admired, not used.

But in a pinch, uses can be found:


Saul Steinberg, Feet on Chair, 1946 Ink over pencil on paper, 9 7/8 x 9 ¼ in.

Private collection ©  permission of The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Changes: Small, Big, and Mammoth

Cities change.

Sometimes it’s incremental and happens in just a few years:

This was the Transbay Terminal, at First and Mission Streets,  up to last year, San Francisco’s hub of trains and buses at one time:

Soon, it will look like this.

And coming across Mission Street:

61 stories

This empty lot in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood

Became this:

(I was the developer of this project, a combination grocery store, public library and housing.)

In 2016, this:

will become this:

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expansion

The changes can take centuries.

This bucolic scene:

1802 – 1814

became this:

and wound up like this:

Rockefeller Center

In 1816,this was the scene at 16th and Dolores in the Mission, about 5 blocks from my apartment:

These changes are no big deal.

This year, on the site of the Transbay Terminal, a backhoe unearthed an 11,000-year-old tooth of a Woolly Mammoth. Today, tech workers and secretaries graze here on their lunch hours, but then it was this guy:

We marvel at the changing city – the restaurants opening and closing, the skyline changing. 11,000 years from now what eyes will gaze at First and Mission, and what will they see?

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