If you’re looking for an architect you might be drawn to a Modernist or a Postmodernist or even a Brutalist.

But if you have in mind a Surrealist, Frederick Kiesler (1890 – 1965) is your man.

Kiesler isn’t very well known – his most famous work was an art gallery for Peggy Guggenheim, Art of This Century in NY (1942).

Also, he was Hedy Lamarr’s uncle.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

Surrealist architecture isn’t very practical, which many clients consider a shortcoming.

And Kiesler set a standard for impracticality.

“If Kiesler wants to hold two pieces of wood together, he pretends he’s never heard of nails or screws. He tests the tensile strengths of various metal alloys, experiments with different methods and shapes, and after six months comes up with a very expensive device that holds two pieces of wood together almost as well as a screw.”

Architectural Forum, 1947.

He was short on built projects (and short himself: under 5 feet, he said, “Genius and talent is hardly ever given to tall people”).

But he was huge on ideas, like these:

“Art can no longer live in mid-air nor architecture on the ground of business. That’s over.”

“Our Western world has been overrun by masses of art objects. What we really need is not more and more objects, but an objective.”

“Form does not follow function; function follows vision. Vision follows reality.”

And his unbuilt projects had beautifully poetic names:

The city in space

The endless theatre (shaped like an egg)

The endless house:

Space stage (1924)

City in Space (1925)

Horizontal Skyscraper (1925)

Endless Theatre Without a Stage and Four Dimensional Theatre (1926)

The Telemuseum (with walls designed as receiving screens for transmitted pictures – in 1927)

The Flying Desk (1930)

Nucleus House (1931)

Murals Without Walls (1936)

Vision Machine (“quasi-scientific, grandiose yet vague, ideogrammatic and poetic rather than diagrammatic”)(1937)

Mobile Home Library (1938)

Hall of Superstitions (1947)

Grotto for Meditation (in the shape of a dolphin, underground) (1962)

and Tooth House (1948).

His original drawing for Tooth House hangs in my office.

In his whole career, only one Kiesler building was built.

The Shrine of the Book (1965), it is in Jerusalem and houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Six months later, Frederick J. Kiesler was dead.

For more on Frederick J. Kiesler, you might consult Frequently Asked Questions About Frederick J. Kiesler.


Some are lovable, like the Emerald City of Oz, where you can get cleaned up after a rough road trip:

 Then there are the cities which are better off as dreams – because in real life they would be nightmares. In particular, I think of the garden cities of Le Corbusier:

And then those dreamt cities which, tragically, got built:

Brasilia, the dream of Oscar Niemeyer

Albany, New York, Nelson Rockefeller

The Bronx, Robert Moses

 There are people who map imaginary cities such as these of Gramen, the capital of the equally imaginary Scania.

In the San Francisco Public Library’s online card catalogue, there are 17,455 listings that begin “City of…” including:

        City of Vice, of Ice, of Rocks, of Dust, and Ash.

 City of Dreams, of Dreadful Nights, of Dragons, of Angels, of Fallen Angels.

 Of Scoundrels, Rogues and Schnorrers, of Bad Men, of Lost Girls, and Lost Souls.

 Of Promise, of Secrets, of Whispers, of Wind, of Glass and a City of Fire.

 There’s a City of God and one of the Dead. All the way to the Lost City of Z.

Better yet, the cities in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities from 1972 in which Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of his visits to these cities (among others):

City Notable for
Despina Different cities if approached by land or sea
Phyllis Only the part you see at any one time exists
Moriana Behind what you see is “rusting sheetmetal, sackcloth, planks bristling with spikes…”
Octavia Built on a net over a chasm like a spiderweb
Eusapia The dead are placed in an identical city, beneath the living one

And then with the mythical city of Zobeide, Calvino comes closest to home. “They tell this tale of its foundation; men of various nations had an identical dream… and they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. The city’s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dream.

Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.”

Ad Hoc Monuments

Every town is cluttered with statues of the departed. Could be Garibaldi or Mao, Jefferson or Lenin.

Ancient or Modern, they’re dead. And they’re so heroic we hardly notice them. We can’t touch them and they don’t touch us.

But there is another kind of memorial, the ones made by ordinary people to honor ordinary people and they have a power the monuments don’t.

Here’s one from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

Sometimes they whiz by the car, sites where someone got hit.


On my block, a 23-year old girl named Emily Dunn was hit by a bus and killed and this memorial grew and then, itself, died.

This went up a few weeks ago in a doorway a block away:

Right across the street there is this plaque in the sidewalk in front of Harvey Milk’s former camera store. It not only memorializes him, it also contains him, or at least his ashes.

But what of love? Death gets its statues but love we mark on our own. Here, on a bridge over the Seine, sweethearts lock padlocks to mark their affection.

Without any permits or committees or hearings or plans, in the cracks, our feelings.

This House is Blue in France.

This house is blue in France.

There is a parallel San Francisco for the French – romantic and imaginary, it’s the San Francisco of the 1970’s.

French tourists come looking for it, with their kids, even in the Castro (where American families just don’t come). It exists in what the French call “le Far West”, where everyone is free.

In 1973, Maxime Leforestier had a big hit in France with the song San Francisco. It begins:

    It’s a blue house

    Perched on a hill.

The song continues: One throws away the key, everyone’s there, it swims in the fog, Tom plays the guitar and we roll on the grass. It’s a blue house, you go there on foot, the people who live there have thrown away the key, people with long hair, people of light, mad people.

M. Leforestier, in a recent interview:

Fuyant toute autorité, loin des préjugés dont ils se sentent victimes, des hippies, des homosexuels et des insoumis qui refusent de partir au Vietnam vivent ensemble en bonne intelligence, en toute liberté surtout.”

Fleeing all authority, far from the prejudices against them, the hippies, homosexuals, and the rebels who refused to take part in Vietnam live together happily and above all free.

“Tout le monde etait amoureux et libre”: Everyone was in love and free.

You can make a trip to this French version of San Francisco at youtube.

This house, la maison bleue, is the symbol of a lost world, un Age d’Or which never was. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Certainly, it’s a world as real as our imaginary Paris in the ’20s, its counterpart on the fictional map.

The Blue House is real – it’s at 3841 18th Street, but it’s even more solid in imagination.

Until recently it was green. The French magazine Nouvelle Observateur took it hard: Sacrilège: La maison bleue de Maxime Le Forestier est verte! According to the author it would be as if the Taj Mahal were painted cherry red.

But with the contribution of a French paint company and the participation of the French Consulate, the house is, once again, bleue.

If only we could bring up the lost times, conjure up lost youth, with a coat of paint!

Human Resources

There’s a lot to see where I work, at Market Street between 2nd Street and New Montgomery.

I even wrote about this block on an earlier post: a private eye said it’s the perfect place to lose a tail because there’s so much action.

Thousands of people pass by in an hour – like Frank Chu, who orbits Market Street with his crazy signs. And tons of office workers, tourists, art students, deliverers, and panhandlers.  Some strutting and some shuffling.

I’m down there all the time but just last week I realized that the most important landmarks on the block aren’t the heroic statue or the Hobart Building. They are the Guardian and the Concierge.  Every day, they’re there like bookends, the Guardian on one corner and the Concierge on the other. Without them the block would seem empty, like a party before the guests arrive or a nightclub during the day.

The Guardian.

When the Bank of America is open he stands by the door.   I wouldn’t even think of robbing this branch. I’m even afraid to speak to him, with his gun and his sunglasses. 

The Concierge

For the eight years I’ve had an office on this corner, he’s been in front every day.  On good days he shines shoes and on rainy days he sells umbrellas.  At least four times every weekday he’s tried to shame me into a shine – even when I’ve worn brand new shoes.  That’s over 7,000 times I’ve heard “Where’s the pride!?” and “We gotta do something about those shoes, Slim!”  But I never wanted to sit, like a potentate on Market Street, while getting my shoes shined.

Until last week. He gestured me onto an old movie theatre seat. We introduced ourselves after thousands of days of shoeshine offers and shrugs.

22 years he’s been on the corner, far longer than any of the stores or banks. They come and go but John (that’s his name) has been steady. He anchors the block. Most of his patrons have been coming regularly for years themselves, men mostly, catching up and getting shined. Watching the block change and the world go by.

It’s a great corner: it’s got a subway stop and a flower stand and a heroic statue. It’s got a mix of old buildings and new ones. Historic streetcars run by.

Plus, now, every morning I get greeted on arrival; “Hey Dave how’s it goin’?” and greet John back by name, too. The ice has been broken.

When streets get planned and planted and buildings get designed and built it’s easy to forget the pleasure of a welcome. The importance of recognizing where we are and of being recognized back. Of belonging.

This human touch: you can’t buy it or rent it, design it or build it, or fake it. But it you can feel it.

Reflections of the Unseen

When you’re out on the city streets it pays to be attentive. But to what?  You couldn’t possibly get around while hearing every sound, smelling every smell, seeing everything.  You’ve got to be selective. There are a lot of distractions. Everybody and everything wants to be noticed.

 Shopkeepers put a lot of effort into displaying their merchandise in a way that says, ‘Hey! – Buy me!”.

  Like these:

 (photos by James T. and Karla L. Murray, from their book Storefront)

But if you’re not distracted you can see a whole parallel world. A two dimensional world between you and the 3D one.

I never paid much attention to this world before checking out the work of the painter Richard Estes.


  • photographs street scenes
  • then uses the photos as the basis for huge paintings. 
  • These paintings of photographs get photographed again
  • and printed in books.

And now I’ve scanned some and they’ve scrambled into bytes and landed as pixels for you to see on a computer screen.

Look for them on the street.

City of Tomorrow

If you take a moment to think about the city of the future you might picture some Flash Gordon fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the Jetsons. Or Blade Runner-era LA.

They’re good settings for nightmares, the Cities of Tomorrow, from Brasilia to Metropolis to Corbusier’s slabs.

Corbusier’s dream            Redevelopment


But it’s hard enough to picture the city of today, much less tomorrow’s.

For most people in cities, it’s not like the romantic favorites of New York, Paris, or London or even the golden oldies of Jerusalem, Rome or Cairo.

For many of these new urbanists, the reality looks more like this, a town of shacks, called favelas, in Sao Paulo, Brasil.

It’s worthwhile to wonder about the City of Tomorrow because by 2030 60% of the world – almost 5 billion people – will live in cities – double what it is today. At the beginning of the 20th century, 220 million people lived in cities. At the end of the century 2.8 billion did.

(These figures are from the United Nations)

Here are some of the biggest cities in the world. I picked these because I’d never heard of any of them:

Dalian, China Population: 6.5 million

Dhaka, Bangladesh Population: 11 million

Fortaleza, Brazil Population: 3 million

Kano, Nigeria Population: 2.8 million

Belo Horizonte, Brazil Population: 4.16 million

Faisalabad, Pakistan Population: 3.2 million

Turns out the City of Tomorrow is probably in Korea. It’s Songdo:

  • Its 1500 acres are 40% parks and canals and it has a residential density of Manhattan.
  • The City will have the carbon footprint of a city a third of its size.
  • Water and waste are recycled: rainwater and grey water are collected for cooling and irrigation, solid waste is burned for heat and electricity.
  • The goal is to use 30% less water than a city its size and to save 75% of the trash from landfill.
  • Of course the buildings have solar panels on the roof, and sod too. The windows are of special glass and the concrete uses 20% less cement.
  • Thanks to Cisco it is the most wired city in the world.
  • When the first 2,200 apartments went on the market in 2005 there were 170,000 applications.

The developer has plans for 20 more versions of Songdo in China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Here are an article and a video about Songdo.

(I began thinking about these questions after I moderated a conversation with Greg Lindsay, author of Aerotropolis, at the World Affairs Council. The conversation was called “Rethinking the Future of Cities” and you can listen to the podcast here: You can buy his book at Amazon.)


San Francisco feels like a stage set or a city in a dream.

Nostalgic for a make-believe city, we built one. You can walk down the street and see a Venetian Palazzo, a Gothic Cathedral, a brand new Victorian, a Chinese pagoda, and a bank disguised as a Roman temple.

We’ve even got copies of copies of Greek temples:

Paris                            San Francisco

We’ve got banks that look like ancient Rome:

All over town, otherwise modest houses strut their columns:

We’ve got Moorish Revival:

And some kind of Indian Revival:

Even those buildings in Chinatown are sets – the pagodas and temple roofs were grafted on after the 1906 earthquake to attract tourists.

And we’ve got Mission Revival and what I call Flintstones Revival:

Even our parking lots can be Spanish Revival:

But my favorite’s got to be Mayan Revival.

It can be just a little bit, on the top:

Or over the door:

In the Mission, it’s strictly do it yourself:

Or it can be totally over the top:

No human sacrifices here. But plenty of pain. 450 Sutter Street, by the great San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, houses probably half the dentists in the city.

San Franciscans wear the costumes of 50’s beatniks or 60’s hippies or Goths. How much better if we matched the buildings with Mayan and Roman tunics, pirate outfits, mandarin robes, and Victorian gowns.


From Sewers to Starchitecture: Glamour and its opposite

The scene: the unveiling of the conceptual design for the new Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University. Waiters passed around wine and hors d’oeuvres, there was a pianist and everyone was dressed up. The architect, dressed in black with shiny black boots and a shaved head, talked about Architecture.

Courtesy Michael Maltzan Architecture

We all got to see the model.

Courtesy Michael Maltzan Architecture


It really is a sexy building.

I was invited because I played a key role on the project: I got the utility pipes moved to accommodate the building.

It took two years and we needed permission from

  • the Department of Public Works;
  • Public Utilities Commission staff (and Commission);
  • Planning Department;
  • City committees with acronyms like CULCOP and TASC;
  • City Attorney’s Office;
  • Department of Real Estate;
  • a title company and an appraiser;
  • two Board of Supervisor Committee hearings;
  • And four votes by the full Board of Supervisors.

Here’s what we did:

Okay, it’s not much to look at.


The building was designed by an architect named Michael Maltzan from Los Angeles, but probably it was designed by a half dozen anonymous architects in his office. Plus hundreds of mechanical engineers and structural engineers and lighting people and geotechnical engineers and landscape architects. And campus planners and the people who put together the bond issue to pay for it and the voters who voted for it. And Mr. Mashouf who made an enormously generous contribution to get it started and the fund raisers who asked him for the gift. And the people who made the stuff that gets put together into the shape of a building and then the people who put it together.

We make a mistake when we think a building is “by” the architect in the way a painting is by an artist.

A Jackson Pollock really is by Jackson Pollock.


We take for granted all those pipes and wires which bring us water, take water away, heat our coffee, bring the juice to our lightbulbs and the pictures to our televisions. If they weren’t where they should be we’d look for someone to blame. But they do work, so next time you take a cold drink from your fridge drink a toast, please, to the armies of people who made it possible.

One and a Half Parking Lot Booths

If it’s parking lot booths you’re after, San Francisco’s Market Street isn’t a great place to look. On the whole length of the street, I only found one and a half.

There are a handful of places to park. But few have booths.

If you’re staying at the Travelodge at Market and Valencia there’s a spot for you.


Sometimes the booths have lots of personality. And although they invite graffiti, they can also host street art.

This piece, just half a block off Market Street, seems to be by the British artist Banksy (

There’s something poignant about parking lot booths. They’re a dying piece of the urban landscape. There’s really no reason any longer for parking lots to have human concierges.

A machine can do the job.


And the lots themselves are mostly doomed. They need to be in places where people want to go – to shop or eat or visit. But nobody wants to just go to a parking lot. So the popularity of their neighbors creates the pressure to get rid of them. One by one they disappear and with them their booths.

I got rid of one myself, though there wasn’t a booth: just parking meters. Now on the site there’s a grocery store, library, and housing (see my article for the Urbanist Magazine: How to Turn a Parking Lot into Apartments, a library, and a Grocery Store the Hard Way:

The whole length of Market Street there are only one and a half booths.

This one has a sign to say that it’s lost its lease.


Farther up Market, this half booth.

It’s only there on weekends, in the parking lot of Sullivan’s Funeral Home. Weekdays it gets rolled away. The clients aren’t grieving friends and relatives; they’re kids going clubbing.


It measures only 2.25 feet by 5 feet. The attendant’s review:

“It’s got my desk. It’s got my television. It works for me.”

%d bloggers like this: