The Social and Physical Fabric of Place

Architecture in the scope of planning

Urbanist Article March 1, 2001

When I first moved to San Francisco from the East Coast in 1969, San Francisco was physically a different city than it is today. Of course, the weather, the topography, the picturesqueness, the bridges, the light, the views—all these were the same. I was infatuated by the city’s glorious parks, its incredibly steep and deliciously various streets, its spectacular prospects and its endlessly inventive small scale historic domestic architecture designed by the city’s most famous dead architects, Willis Polk, John Galen Howard, Bernard Maybeck and even Eric Mendelsohn. Urbanistically, it was the orthogonal city grid laid over the hilly topography, the astonishing array of private houses and parks, rather than its civic spaces or its public buildings, that represented what was unique about San Francisco.

The city’s “public realm” was a defining element neither of the city fabric nor of public life here. One did not really use either the Civic Center, or Union Square, for example, without a practical agenda, such as paying one’s property tax or going to Macy’s. The art museums were sleepy, a little musty and far-flung. If you had lived here for a long time, you subscribed to the Opera or Symphony. Culturally the place was dull. In those days, little old San Francisco ladies still went downtown to the City of Paris or I. Magnin wearing white gloves and hats with veils. Nobody who had a view of Marin County ever went South of Market Street.

Thankfully, daily life in San Francisco has been transformed by, among other things, the substantial construction of the city’s “public realm,” particularly during the last decade when virtually all private development came to a screeching halt. In that ten-year or so period, Yerba Buena Center has opened as the city’s newest cultural district, appealing to diverse audiences with offerings of high and popular culture alike, spawning numerous museums, galleries, restaurants and housing nearby, drawing a local and regional population south of Market Street. The stuffy old Civic Center has become a place for culture and community with the addition of the new Main Library and future Asian Art Museum, not to mention the renovation of City Hall and the Opera House. The military has folded its tents, so to speak, giving us the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and the Presidio (one hopes) for expansion of the Bay Area’s public life: think Crissy Field. We are getting a new Mission Bay Campus for the University of California. The waterfront has been restored to its rightful owners by the Loma Prieta earthquake. In historic Golden Gate Park, two brilliant architectural firms of worldclass stature are designing new homes for venerable but forward-thinking San Francisco institutions, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. What better way to celebrate San Francisco’s reverence for history and time than to face the next century with two great new modern buildings which not only embody the cultural values of the institutions they house, but a civic and cultural attitude that embraces the future and raises the bar for the entire Bay Area design community?

These numerous public and cultural projects have begun and will continue to transform our public realm. These are the “places of agreement,” the city’s common ground, where differences are celebrated but also blurred. These are the places of shared experience, where diversity coexists with community, where participation and interaction are open to all. The public realm is a powerful symbol of the enduring social relationships that define the contemporary city and which are critical to its success. The design quality (architecture) of individual structures reinforces their contribution to the reading of the city as a whole, and the thoughtful relationships among them (urban design) create the social and physical fabric of place. For San Francisco to define its future as a diverse and interesting twenty-firstcentury city, inspired planning of the whole must occur hand-in-hand with equally inspired design of the parts. We must refrain from looking back with nostalgia at a San Francisco that never was or is no more, but instead insist on an entirely new critical definition of context, which includes a reading of and response to place, both physical and temporal. As the late Lewis Mumford, America’s most prominent urbanist and urban polemicist of his generation, so aptly wrote, “Architecture and city planning are the visible translations of the total meaning of a culture. Each generation writes its biography in the buildings it creates; each culture characterizes, in the city, the unifying idea that runs through its activities.”Spur logo


About the Authors: 

Cathy Simon, FAIA, is founding partner, director of architecture, and president of Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris (SMWM).

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