The San Francisco Paradox

When good cities have bad architecture.

San Francisco

Ours is the age of international “starchitects” and “signature buildings,” epitomized by the if-you-build-it-they-will-come success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, Spain, which revitalized the city’s economy. By contrast, San Francisco epitomizes a different, older model: a thriving city with a prosperous commercial past (in this case a port) that gradually became what urban economists call a “glamour city.” Glamour cities are centers of international business (New York), political power (Washington, D.C.), and the New Economy (Boston). They usually have a 19th-century infrastructure of museums, concert halls, and well-preserved residential architecture, and they are where the wealthy, the well-educated, and the ambitious want to live. High-end demand, in turn, produces real estate values that—even in the current slump—are an order of magnitude greater than elsewhere. These cities are vibrant, livable, prosperous, and well-managed. San Francisco, on top of all this, has a temperate climate and a great natural setting. What it doesn’t have is great architecture.

It’s hard to know exactly why some cities develop an architectural sensibility. Clearly, having a local star serves to raise the level of public consciousness of good architecture. In the 1960s, Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and Louis Kahn in Philadelphia attracted and trained a generation of talented young architects from around the world, many of whom stayed to open their own offices. A strong architectural tradition helps, too. Chicago got a running start with Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham at the end of the 19th century, Boston had H.H. Richardson, and during the Gilded Age New York City had McKim, Mead & White. The Bay Area had Bernard Maybeck, an original talent, whose blend of Arts and Crafts and Classicism might have been the beginning of a regional movement, except it was eclipsed by Modernism, and withered on the vine. (Maybeck’s career was basically over by 1930, although he did not die until 1957.)

The West Coast suffered by comparison to the East Coast, though there have been at least two significant architectural movements in Los Angeles in recent years: the first in the 1950s, * represented by Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Craig Ellwood, and the second today, dominated by Frank Gehry, who moved to the city when he was 17 and has become L.A.’s—and the country’s—leading architect. San Francisco, on the other hand, has not managed to produce any major homegrown talent since Maybeck. In the 1960s, Charles Moore built a series of houses in the Bay Area in a casual, rustic style. His masterpiece was Sea Ranch, a barnlike complex of houses on the Pacific shore, designed in 1967 with his partnership, Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker. But the peripatetic Moore did not stay long. In any case his buildings were suburban or rural and had little effect on the city itself, which plodded on. You know that the bar hasn’t been set very high when the most exciting downtown interior space is still John C. Portman’s theatrical Hyatt Regency hotel atrium, built in 1973.

A row of painted ladies

Architecturally speaking, San Francisco has been like a beautiful, rich woman who has never developed an interest in cooking and serves TV dinners to her family, then occasionally—somewhat frantically—hires caterers whenever she has company for dinner. OK, it’s an imperfect analogy, but you get the idea. The question, now, is what the city should do. Perhaps in recognition of its architectural lack, in recent years San Francisco has been importing talent: Mario Botta (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); Pei, Cobb, Freed (main library); Fumihiko Maki (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts); and the Polshek Partnership (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater). These buildings are not unqualified successes. The art museum, eagerly awaited as Botta’s first U.S. commission, is self-conscious and out of scale; the library is a tepid exercise in Postmodernism (and has been severely criticized for its functional shortcomings). With the exception of Herzog & de Meuron’s recently completed de Young Museum—which will be the subject of a future Slate slide show—San Francisco has not inspired its hired guns to do their best work.

It may be San Francisco’s spectacular setting that is the problem (Rio de Janeiro, another beautiful bay city, has likewise failed to produce striking architecture). Of course, San Francisco does have one strong tradition: its thousands of remarkable houses. Quirky, uninhibited, individualistic, full of character, often thumbing their noses at architectural convention, the so-called painted ladies line the hilly streets in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. This domestic tradition has produced interesting contemporary urban housing, but the very qualities that make residential buildings attractive are ill-suited to large urban projects, which need a different sense of style. To return to my increasingly imperfect analogy, if only the beautiful, rich woman could find a way to turn these snacks into a main—home-cooked—course.

Correction, Nov. 2, 2006:This article originally identified the Californian architectural movement represented by Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Craig Ellwood as taking place during the 1960s. It is more accurate to locate it in the 1950s. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)