Tag: Architecture

Coda: 1 Kearny Street, San Francisco

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Photo and rendering courtesy of the architect.

1 Kearny Street, San Francisco
Office of Charles F. Bloszies, AIA

The 1902 Mutual Savings Bank Building, by William Curlett, is one of the few survivors of the devastating fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This French Renaissance Revival building was paired in 1964 with an addition by Clark & Beuttler in association with Charles Moore. Moore’s abstract interpretation of the original building’s massing reflected the struggle of early post-Modernism to discover an appropriate way to extend an historic building form. Today, Moore’s structure, like Curlett’s, is an historically protected building.

An approved addition by Charles F. Bloszies, flanking the original building, adopts a different strategy for contextual response. A contemporary language of glass and steel reflects both the pattern and the delicacy of the original façade, forming a visual continuity while recognizing the progress of construction technology.

At press time, it was unclear whether Bloszies’s proposal to carry the new pattern of glazing into the now largely opaque shaft of the Moore addition would qualify for federal historic preservation tax credits. Whatever the outcome, this trio should form an instructive ensemble for students of the changing process of historical review—itself an historical phenomenon.



. . . and Counting

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]

NIMBY acronyms
NIMTOO Not in my term of office
LULU’s Locally unaccepted land uses
NIABY Not in anybody’s backyard
NIMBL Not in my bottom line
NOPE Not on planet earth
CAVE Citizens against virtually everything
BANANA Build absolutely nothing at or near anyone

A list of planning terms that would sound very provocative if voiced by R&B legend Barry White
Brown Act
Density Bonus
Impact Fees
Neg Dec
Definitions can be found at www.ceres.ca.gov

Top anti-development web site results from a ‘Save the …’ search
Save the Rainforest
Save the Bay
Save the Redwoods
Save the Trees
Save the Dunes
Save the River
Save the 76 Ball

Search asking ‘What does ADR stand for?’
Adverse Drug Reaction
Average Daily Rate
Administrative Dispute Resolution
Alzheimer’s Disease Review
Ammunition Disposition Request
Architectural Design Review
Automatic Dialogue Replacement

Zoning terms developed in the last few decades
Flexible Zoning
Form Based Zoning
Incentive Zoning
Inclusionary Zoning
Overlay Zoning
Performance Zoning

Results from an Avery Index search of ‘design + review’
8 records related to San Francisco
4 records related to Seattle
1 record related to Santa Barbara

Example of a title of one of these articles:
“Aesthetics by Legislation: San Francisco’s Attempt to Preserve its Image,” by Mitchell Schwarzer, Crit, Fall 1986

Last journal to dedicate an entire issue to the subject of design review:
Arcade, Spring 2003

Some quotations about committees in general
“A committee can make a decision that is dumber than any of its members.” David Coblitz
“Committee: a group of people who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen
“There is no monument dedicated to the memory of a committee.” Lester J. Pourciau
“To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.” Robert Copeland
“A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” Sir Barnett Cocks

Follow-up: big box beats modern icon
We reported in arcCA 06.3, “Preserving Modernism,” that IBM Building 25 in San Jose, designed by John Bolles, FAIA, in the late 50s, was the subject of a California Preservation Foundation lawsuit against Lowe’s, which plans to demolish the structure. Lowe’s has prevailed (after two court rulings and two votes by the San Jose City Council), but as part of an agreement with the city must contribute $300,000 toward historic preservation projects.



Design Guideline Guidelines

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Author Ellis A. Schoichet, AIA, is the founder and Principal Architect of EASA Architecture in San Mateo, established in 1992. From 1996 to 1998, Ellis also acted as Director of Green Building Services for GTEK, a San Francisco based consulting firm specializing in improving the environmental and financial performance of buildings. He is currently serving as the President of the AIA San Mateo County Chapter.


In 2004-5, I volunteered to sit on San Mateo County’s Planning and Building Task Force. I was invited to join the Task Force as a representative of AIA San Mateo County, of which I am a Board Member, currently serving as 2007 President. I accepted the assignment, because I have a keen interest in how oversight regulations and review processes affect my clients and the quality of the architecture that they can build. I hoped to have a tempering influence on the County’s sometimes-Kafkaesque review process.

The jury’s still out on that, but since then I’ve been following efforts to increase the level of design regulation in the City of San Mateo, the County’s Emerald Hills jurisdiction, and the Town of Hillsborough (not a comprehensive list). Beginning in Spring ’06, it seemed an overwhelming task to evaluate and weigh-in on each proposal that came to my attention. The positive side to this rising tide of bureaucratic activity is that it forced me to reevaluate my thinking regarding public regulation of design. After carrying a knee-jerk negative attitude around with me for years, I took the time to examine the motivations of those who advocate design regulation, their growing impact on our communities, and what it all means to the architectural profession.

The trend is inescapable: as time goes by, architects face ever-increasing levels of design regulation. As an architect who focuses a considerable portion of my practice on trying to create designs that are meaningful on many different levels, I find the language of some of the recent proposals deeply disturbing. They have an increasing tendency to eviscerate the practice of architecture, limiting discussion of the merits of a design to only the most simplistic level. Contrast an excerpt from the original enabling language adopted by San Mateo County in 1976 with the language of a 2006 proposal for revised design guidelines in Emerald Hills. The excerpt from 1976 describes the County’s intent and goals in seeking to regulate the design of projects on private property:

“Regulation of design should not be so rigidly enforced that individual initiative is precluded in the design of any particular building or substantial additional expense incurred; rather, the regulation exercised should only be the minimum necessary to achieve the overall objectives . . . . Appropriate design is based upon the suitability of a building for its purposes, upon the appropriate use of sound materials and upon the principles of harmony and proportion in the elements of the building . . . .”

Compare the language above with the following excerpts from 2006:

“…a home . . . may appear massive or bulky, if the building shape and/or façade is too simple. Simple forms often appear more massive and larger, while houses with more variety in their forms appear less massive and often more interesting.”

“…massive or boxy styles (such as Mediterranean stucco) are discouraged . . . avoid revivalist styles.”

“When planning a new home or second story addition, begin with a primary roof form. Consider additions to the primary roof such as secondary roof forms and dormers that may serve to reduce the home’s apparent mass and scale, provide visual interest and have an appropriate number of roof forms. Additional roof forms shall be architecturally compatible with the primary roof form’s slope and material.”

The language reads more like a recitation of lay opinion and personal stylistic preference than a call for creativity and design quality. The last one is a special treat, apparently excerpted from a lecture on building morphology given by the design professor from Hell.

As this type of language seduces one community after another, I’ve become convinced that it is having a destructive influence on design quality rather than the hoped-for improvement. Framed too narrowly, these guidelines cross the line that should exist between a governing agency’s rights to define goals and provide guidance and incentives, and property owners’ rights to set their own agendas for architectural expression.

My unease with guidelines that attempt to design the structures they regulate stems from the way in which they erode the ability of a designer to propose creative solutions. In the end, they reward superficiality in the design of structures, penalizing those who pursue new or challenging approaches. I consider design guidelines to be a sort of “Cliff’s Notes” for design—an abridged version, a quick summary of the broad and complex topic of architectural design. While they can be beneficial in some ways, in a bureaucratic setting it’s just too easy to give them more weight than is justified:

The harried designer says, “It doesn’t really matter how it looks, it follows all of the guidelines!”

The conscientious Planning Department staffer says, “Boy, this sure looks great, but it doesn’t follow the design guidelines unless you go back and slap a couple more dormers on it.”

These examples may sound far-fetched to some, but in the trenches of Bay Area design regulation I’ve seen it all.

Design guidelines that are too specific limit the range of possible solutions to those that can be imagined by the individuals crafting the language. It is a presumptive design approach, in which those who write the guidelines presume to make decisions that in most cases are better left to someone familiar with the specific site conditions, owner needs, and neighbor concerns. No matter how well composed, a written standard can only be reasonably applied to a limited range of conditions. The narrower and more rigid the standard, the fewer conditions to which it will reasonably apply.

In the end, an intelligent, independent design review process may be the key element that makes design guidelines effective in regulating design without killing it. Despite the pitfalls, an independent design review body can provide the perspective and skills necessary to interpret design guidelines in the context of the actual facts of a case. Design review bodies can evaluate the applicability of guidelines to a particular situation and render decisions that balance the needs of all interests at play in the realization of a particular project.

A well-crafted, balanced design guideline and design review process won’t dilute or eliminate the ability of competent architects to present creative solutions to the problems they face. When the guidelines and/or review process are orphaned from one another, or poorly structured and overly restrictive, designers are left an unpleasant choice. They can take refuge in the safety of known, tried-and-true solutions, or they can face a review process of indeterminate length and uncertain outcome irrespective of the merit of the design.

Based on the above reasoning, I propose the following criteria for evaluating design regulations. For lack of a better name, I refer to them as Design Guidelines Guidelines:

  1. Legislation and/or administrative rules regulating design must establish an independent design review body as a companion to the adoption of design guidelines, and vice-versa.
  1. Design guidelines should clearly state the goals of the community and encourage designers to work creatively to achieve these goals, rather than presumptively telling them how to design or defining what designs are acceptable. They should not be compendia of the opinions and subjective personal taste of neighborhood interest groups. They should provide for evolving sensibilities, changing tastes, and future technologies. And, where sample designs and other specifics are included in a design guidelines document, it should be clearly established that such examples and illustrations are suggestions not intended to be definitive or mandatory.
  1. The design review body should be granted the administrative tools they need to stand up for quality design, to reject poor design, and to interpret and adapt guidelines to each individual situation. Broad representation on design review bodies is beneficial, but a significant proportion of the body should have some level of expertise in a relevant design field. Interpretation of design guideline applicability and/or compliance should not reside entirely in the hands of laypersons or Planning Department staffers.




Gems of the City: S.F.’s Top 25

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, Golden Gate Park, 2005, Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects, photo by Mark Darley.

Author John King is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a frequent contributor to other architectural publications, including Architecture Boston. This article has been reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, April 17, 2007.


Put any group of 20 architects in a room and ask them to choose the buildings in their city that are of special significance, and I’ll wager no two lists will be alike.

But when that opinionated mob is also the board of directors of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, its verdict arrives with a certain gravitas.

So say hello to the semiofficial list of San Francisco’s top 25 buildings, divided neatly into five choices in five categories: religious, residential, commercial, historic and civic. And let the second-guessing begin.

There are beloved landmarks such as the Palace of Fine Arts and controversial newcomers, including the steel-sheathed federal tower at Seventh and Mission Streets. You’ve got a block of century-old homes for the wealthy across from the Presidio, and low-income apartment buildings on Sixth Street and in the Tenderloin.

There’s the big-eared Transamerica Pyramid and the sublime Palace Hotel—two very different icons from very different eras.

“Our goal was to find the gems in our city that can be enjoyed by both architects and the public,” says Zigmund Rubel, president of the local chapter’s board and a principal at the firm Anshen+Allen. “We also wanted a mixture of turn-of-the-century buildings and more contemporary works.”

The list comes two months after the national AIA released the results of an online survey that produced what it calls “America’s 150 favorite structures.” Gimmicky as all get-out, but irresistible— which is why the institute’s Web site received more than 5 million hits in the next three days. This list doesn’t involve a public survey. Nor is it the result of a consultation with the San Francisco chapter’s 2,300 members.

Instead, the board was prodded to take a stand by chapter Executive Director Margie O’Driscoll.

(Note: The chapter covers only San Francisco and Marin counties. That’s why the rest of the Bay Area is ignored.)

“Our objective was pretty clear,” O’Driscoll says. “We want to inspire people to look at buildings and think about them critically, in both a positive and negative sense.”

O’Driscoll wanted a brazen batch of just five faves—but architects are a breed that loves nothing more than to finesse details, so instead there are five discrete lists with five buildings each. The board gathered in March and started whittling away.

Many choices are irrefutable—you can’t fight City Hall, at least not Arthur Brown Jr.’s Beaux Arts masterpiece—and other buildings deserve acclaim simply because they bring joy. For instance, the Conservatory of Flowers adds a magical whimsy to Golden Gate Park, even though the parts were assembled in 1878 from a kit shipped over from England. Similarly, who can begrudge Bernard Maybeck’s romantic Palace of Fine Arts? It’s a revered survivor of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition—even though it happens to be fake, a 1960s concrete replica of the plaster original.


Plaza Apartments, Sixth and Howard streets, 2006, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects, photo by Tim Griffith.

And this being San Francisco, there’s a conscientious effort to be (architecturally) diverse. The Haas-Lilienthal House from 1886, the very embodiment of Victorian style, takes a bow; so does the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, a triumph of cool abstraction that opened in 2005. We also see—and I doubt this was the board’s intent—that San Francisco’s allure lies in geography and neighborhood context as opposed to architectural innovation.

The Palace of the Legion of Honor is an exquisite 1916 knockoff of neo-classical Paris. The old Crown-Zellerbach Building at 1 Bush St. is an exquisite 1959 knockoff of the modern towers perfected by Skidmore Owings & Merrill in Chicago and New York.

Aside from 1917’s Hallidie Building with its glass curtain wall, you won’t find design breakthroughs; the best buildings on the list distill what came before, as with 1 Bush St. and the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The Federal Building and the de Young are welcome experiments by renowned outsiders. The same goes for 560 Mission St.—a boxy blue tower from 2002 that shows how refined Cesar Pelli can be. As for the second-guessing mentioned above, I’m thrilled to see Curran House and the Plaza Apartments on the list: Each of these young housing complexes is a humane example of high design for people with low incomes.

But where are San Francisco’s jazzy office towers from the late 1920s? A skyscraper like George Kelham’s Shell Building at 100 Bush St. has an intoxicating pizzazz you won’t find at the Pyramid or 1 Bush. Rubel concedes the inherent subjectivity of a list hammered out over a conference table in an hour of spirited debate.

“What we came up with is representative of San Francisco, and it’s the result of consensus,” Rubel says. “With more time, maybe we would have tweaked it a bit.”


Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, 1878 (restoration architects, 2003: Architectural Resources Group), photo by David Wakely.


TOP 25

The top 25 buildings in San Francisco, according to the board of directors of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects.


Grace Cathedral, 1051 Taylor St., 1928, Lewis Hobart

St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough St., 1971, Pietro Belluschi, Pier Luigi Nervi and McSweeney, Ryan & Lee

Temple Emanu-el, 2 Lake St., 1926, Arthur Page Brown

Swedenborgian Church, 2107 Lyon St., 1894, Arthur Page Brown

First Unitarian Church, 1187 Franklin St., 1888, George Percy/1970, Callister Payne & Rosse


Plaza Apartments, Sixth and Howard Streets, 2006, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects

Curran House, 145 Taylor St., 2005, David Baker + Partners, Architects

3200 block of Pacific Avenue, houses from 1900 to 1913 designed by architects including Ernest Coxhead, Bernard Maybeck, Willis Polk and William Knowles

Russell House, 3778 Washington St., 1952, Erich Mendelsohn

Haas-Lilienthal House, 2007 Franklin St., 1886, Peter R. Schmidt


San Francisco Federal Building, 90 Seventh St., 2007, Morphosis/SmithGroup

1 Bush St. (former Crown-Zellerbach Building), 1959, Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Hertzka & Knowles

Hallidie Building, 130 Sutter St., 1917, Willis Polk

Transamerica Pyramid, 600 Montgomery St., 1972, William Pereira

JPMorgan Chase Building, 560 Mission St., 2002, Cesar Pelli


Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St., 1909, Trowbridge and Livingston

Circle Gallery, 140 Maiden Lane, 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright

Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., 1915, Bernard Maybeck

War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building, Civic Center, 1932, Arthur Brown Jr. and G. Albert Lansburgh

Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, 1878 (restoration architects, 2003: Architectural Resources Group)


M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, Golden Gate Park, 2005, Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects

City Hall, Civic Center, 1915, Bakewell & Brown

Yerba Buena Gardens: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 1994, Fumihiko Maki; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 1994,

James Stewart Polshek; Metreon, 1999, SMWM, Gary Handel + Associates

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., 1995, Mario Botta, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum

Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 1924, George Applegarth

Source: American Institute of Architects San Francisco



Book Review: Our Valley. Our Choice.

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Our Valley. Our Choice. Building a Livable Future for the San Joaquin Valley
Great Valley Center, 2007, Heyday Books.

Reviewer Margit Aramburu has a BA in geography from Humboldt State and an MLA from UCB’s environmental planning program. She has worked in regional land use planning agencies in the Bay Area and the Delta for 25 years and is currently the director of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.


OK, you want to tell 3.8 million people who live in a 275-mile long valley including eight counties that they need to wake up and carpe diem. You have a clear message, you have funding, and you have a ticking clock—and a new planning process—the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint. The Great Valley Center, the nonprofit organization that could, has written and printed a small volume that shows the way to the future. In its colorful, 112 pages in a comfortable, softbound, seven-inch by nine-inch volume, the past, present, and future are clearly laid out. But who is the audience for this volume, and will those who need to get the message receive and understand it? Local and state government, development interests, and more sophisticated policy wonks have already come to the party; it’s the larger populous that now needs to be informed and engaged.

The Great Valley Center has done a yeoman’s job finding funding, developing data, and convening annual conferences to inform a broader audience about the array of issues facing the San Joaquin Valley today. The Center’s efforts were kick-started in 2001 with a $6 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation. The Great Valley Center’s efforts resulted in the Governor’s June 2005 Executive Order creating the San Joaquin Partnership: a task force of state cabinet members, agency heads, local government officials, and private sector members to develop a Strategic Action Proposal by Halloween 2006.

To obtain this commitment from the governor, however, the Great Valley Center had to set forth the facts on the region dubbed a future “Appalachia of the West” by the California Senate’s May 2003 Ending Poverty in California committee. San Joaquin Valley has a higher growth rate, high unemployment (8.2% versus the statewide 5.3%) and high levels of poverty (one in five Valley residents lives in poverty). Other studies identify high dropout rates from high school and high teen pregnancy rates. Growth of towns has spiraled, resulting in zero rental vacancy rates and schools made largely of modular buildings.

The October 2006 Strategic Action Proposal—The San Joaquin Valley: California’s 21st Century Opportunity—further defines the challenges to the San Joaquin Valley: average per capita income 32.2% lower than the state average; college attendance 50% below state average; violent crime 24% higher than state average; access to healthcare 31% lower than state average; and air quality among the worst in the nation. And the Strategic Action Proposal sets out an admirable suite of initiatives for the next decade: grow a diversified, globally-competitive economy supported by a highly skilled workforce, create a model K-12 public education system, implement an integrated framework for sustainable growth, build a 21st century transportation mobility system, attain clean air standards, and develop high-quality health and human services. For the next two years, the drive would be overseen by a board of 36+ civic leaders and local, state, and federal officials and will be funded from July 2006 through June 2007 by $5 million included in the current state budget.

Our Valley. Our Choice. is easy and fun to “read”: the book is largely photos and charts illustrating the past, present, and future of the Valley. It includes a pithy message from Great Valley Center founder and president, Carol Whiteside, and short essays on “People and Geography” by Gerald Haslam, “The Valley Farmer” by Tom Gallo, and “Building for the Future” by Reza Assemi. Whiteside leads with ten very valuable thoughts: have a big vision, consider the earth, make great plans, protect the edges, add value with good design, build communities that work together, start now, create strong neighborhoods, provide incentives, and keep focused.

But the release of this book can only be one of several ways to reach out to a population of many, diverse ethnic groups, many of them recent immigrants. The Valley has a high percentage of illiterate adults (the state average is 25%) and non-English speakers. And in an age when the Internet is replacing the printed word for many, the San Joaquin Valley has less access to computers and the Internet than other parts of the state. The challenge to the Great Valley Center will be to take the message clearly and succinctly captured by Our Valley. Our Choice. and translate it to its 3.8 million-member audience. The message will have to be on multiple media—radio, television, Internet, and newsprint as well as in book form. And the message will have to reach difficult-to-access folks—perhaps through local community meetings in different languages, or through churches, clubs, or other community gathering spots. Let us hope a creative and thoughtful outreach program is part of the process to guide a San Joaquin Valley-driven vision of its future. The professionals can plan and plan, but not until the community as a whole buys in will any plan on paper become a concrete reality.



Under the Radar: East Oakland School of the Arts

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


East Oakland School of the Arts, Oakland
Stoner Meek Architecture and Urban Design, San Francisco


East Oakland School of the Arts (EOSA) forms a geographic and cultural elision between a creek that connects the Oakland hills to San Francisco Bay and the tense urban jungle that is East Oakland. Supported by funding from the State of California, the former Castlemont High School campus has been divided into four “small schools,” of which EOSA is one. The project reusues an old, long-abandoned industrial arts building at the edge of the campus. Whether industrial or fine, the arts are about making things, and the building celebrates this spirit of anticipation, of the unfinished, of evolving creative and productive energy. The design vocabulary emphasizes building as backdrop, students and their work as foreground. The architects abstracted the form of the original industrial shed into fragments of walls rather than rooms, patches of sunlight rather than institutionalized enclosures, ambiguities of interiority rather than the explicitness of inside and out.

A concrete wall formed with wave-like boards—a symbolic representation of the creek—serves for sitting, for supporting a gallery, as a table for sculpture, as an articulation of an enclosed outdoor space, and as a reflection of handcraft and material. Images of the trees along the creek are imprinted through layers of fence and building as sculpture, etching, shadow, and text.

Five narrow windows along the north wall—which has been disengaged from the five bays of the building by a swath of openings running the length of the building—offer not views but instead a more subtle relation to the outdoors, through light and a place to read. At each window is a lectern that holds a book that has become a part of the school’s curriculum. A quotation from the book’s author is etched into the window, along with images of birds, some in flight, others perched on a line of text. The architects share with the school community the belief that words carry far greater weight than buildings in the establishment of cultural and social values, so the architecture is a backdrop for words as well as for social exchange.

At the end of one of the academic halls is the complete text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, stenciled onto the concrete wall in red paint, a block of text eight feet wide and twelve feet high. Above, two skylights illuminate phrases at random as the sun moves across the sky, and at these moments one will occasionally hear a student exclaim, “Let freedom ring!”




Sand Hill Road: Property Values and Architectural Controls

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. Stanford University’s Hoover Tower is visible in the background.

Elsewhere in this issue, historian David Gebhard describes how the appreciation of aesthetic character and historically significant environments led to the rise of design review in America, and the role that tourism played in that rise. Yet tourism is only one kind of attraction to built places. The Sand Hill Road Corridor in Menlo Park and Palo Alto is the epitome of another: the attraction of businesses to supportive environments. Design review plays an important role in the development of such environments—and their economic value.

Menlo Park and Palo Alto have distinct zoning regulations but similar architectural controls for commercial properties along Sand Hill Road. In Menlo Park, these properties, continuously adjacent to residential areas, have, practically speaking, no permitted uses. All allowable uses—professional, administrative, and executive offices; research and development facilities; and convalescent homes—are conditional, requiring a use permit. Development regulations are strict, allowing structures to cover at most 20 percent of the site, with no less than 30 percent of the site landscaped. Building height is limited to 35 feet, with a floor area ratio (FAR) of only 25 percent. Additional regulations may be required at the discretion of the Planning Commission. In Palo Alto, zoning itself is much less restrictive. For example, the Community Commercial district that includes the Stanford Shopping Center has the Shopping Center itself capped at 1.4 million square feet (a .46 FAR).


3000 Sand Hill Road, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

But both cities have demanding architectural controls. In Menlo Park, the Planning Commission is responsible for the controls, which require “that the general appearance of the structures is in keeping with character of the neighborhood; that the development will not be detrimental to the harmonious and orderly growth of the city; and that the development will not impair the desirability of investment or occupation in the neighborhood.”

Palo Alto’s Architectural Review Board—comprised (unlike Menlo Park’s Planning Commission) chiefly of architects—has a similar charge, with the addition that it “encourage the attainment of the most desirable use of land and improvements” and “promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other.”

What architectural norms guide review? According to Bill Phillips, a financial manager for Stanford University’s Real Estate Operations, Menlo Park has long valued the shallow roof pitches and deep eaves of Cliff May, crystallized in his Sunset magazine headquarters. In Palo Alto, the low-key modernism of William Wurster—who designed the Oak Creek Apartments and a medical office building at 1101 Welch Road—is also an influence. (With the exception of Stanford West Apartments in Palo Alto, the New Urbanism has had little impact in this area.)


Buildings at 3000 Sand Hill Road, by Bill Bocook, AIA, principal-in-charge for Hoover & Associates, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

Palo Alto goes beyond the general definition of architectural controls to spell out sixteen criteria for project approval, addressing compatibility with the Comprehensive Plan and the immediate environment; appropriateness to function; compatibility with areas having a unified design or historical character; harmonious transitions; compatibility with on- and off-site improvements; internal sense of order; desirability; open space; sufficiency and compatibility of ancillary functions; access and circulation; preservation and integration of natural features; appropriate use of materials, textures, colors, and details; functionality and unity of landscape; suitability and drought-resistance of plant material; and energy efficiency.

The last two of these criteria point toward an increasingly significant issue for design review in both cities: sustainability. Phillips notes that a board’s focus shifts, reflecting both the ongoing assessment of prior decisions and emerging issues. Since roughly 2002, he identifies sustainability as the principal concern of the Palo Alto board.


Hewlett Foundation, B.H. Bocook Architect, Inc.

Peninsula architect Bill Bocook agrees that sustainability is now a prominent concern for both cities, but that it has added to rather than displaced other concerns. Bocook’s design for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation headquarters in Menlo Park was seminal in stimulating interest in green building in these communities, as well as at Stanford University. The first LEED Gold building in California and the fifth in the U.S., the project began in 1999 with a charrette involving officials from Menlo Park, San Mateo County, and Stanford, opening a discussion of sustainability. Green building consultant Lynn Simon and landscape architect Cheryl Barton contributed cutting-edge expertise to the effort.

How do these processes affect property values? Gary Wimmer, partner-in-charge of Ford Land Company, credits architectural controls with raising the value of Ford’s several Sand Hill Road properties, not only by establishing standards for the quality and appearance of buildings, but also by restricting density. Lower density reserves significant areas for landscaping, which makes the setting more attractive; it also reduces supply. The combination of greater appeal and less availability intensifies demand, increasing property value. For example, in 1986, 3000 Sand Hill Road, developed in 1969 and owned and operated by Ford Land Company, garnered the highest rental prices per square foot of any office space in the country, including Manhattan. The project continues to be cited in articles worldwide as a premier venture capital mecca and office location. While Ford Land typically holds and leases the properties they develop, Wimmer believes he would feel similarly if he were building for sale. To him, as to Ford Land Company’s founder, the late Tom Ford, the challenging design review processes of Menlo Park and Palo Alto are worth the trouble.


Hewlett Foundation, B.H. Bocook Architect, Inc.



Survivor: The Ultimate Design Review Process

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Anthony Robinson, Earl Cole, Cassandra Franklin, and Sylvia Kwan, during the first episode of SURVIVOR: FIJI on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS. ©2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sylvia Kwan, one of the founders of the San Francisco-based firm Kwan Henmi Architects, was spotted by casting agents for the television show Survivor in a Los Angeles restaurant. Although she scoffed at the idea when first approached, her family convinced her to try out. Building an elaborate structure was part of the show, but the design review process wasn’t especially difficult. Indeed, her expertise at leading the process may have resulted in her early departure from the show. In that way, reality TV doesn’t reward leadership. Nevertheless, she doesn’t regret the decision to participate. Kenneth Caldwell, a writer and communications consultant based in San Francisco, sat down with her to relive some of her experiences and see what lessons there might be for architects and everybody else.


arcCA: It’s fairly unusual for architects to be on television. We’ve seen them portrayed just a few times in sitcoms; Mr. Ed and The Brady Bunch come to mind. You were the first architect on Survivor right? You were representing a profession of well over a hundred thousand to some twenty million viewers. How do you think you came off?

Sylvia Kwan: Some of the other contestants said I was bossy, but I think I expressed leadership skills when they were needed, which was what it took to get the village built so the whole enterprise could begin. In a very basic way, I think I showed that architects can organize people around a good cause.

arcCA: What was your role in building the shelter, and what did you change?

Sylvia Kwan: Normally, the architect creates the site plan, develops the program, and designs the building. In this case, the drawings that we received were pretty much working drawings. They had the site plan, floor plans, roof plan, and kind of a structural plan.

Someone said, “Oh, well, Sylvia’s an architect”—and I said, “Yeah, I’ll take a look at the plans.” And then I said, “It’s fine that I’m an architect, but are there any contractors out there?” Because we had just met, remember. And that’s when Gary, Papa Smurf, raised his hand. And he said, “Oh all photos courtesy of CBS yes, I’m in construction.” What you didn’t see on the show was that he told me he hated architects.


19 new castaways, (alphabetical) Alex Angarita, Kenward ÏBooÓ Bernis, Yau-Man Chan, Earl Cole, Jessica Deben, Erica Durousseau, Cassandra Franklin, Liliana Gomez, Andria ÏDreÓ Herd, Stacy Kimball, Sylvia Kwan, Mookie Lee, Lisette ÏLisiÓ Linares, James Reid, Edgardo Rivera, Anthony Robinson, Gary Stritesky and Michelle Yi. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

arcCA: An auspicious beginning. The theme of this issue is design review. Can you comment on that in relation to building the shelter?

Sylvia Kwan: I began pacing the site to measure it. The site plan showed that the shelter should be right at the mouth of the cave. We walked around and realized that the mouth of the cave probably was solid rock, and that’s when we decided that we had to move the shelter away from the cave in order to get the supporting poles in the ground. We didn’t know whether we had to adhere strictly to the set of plans, so I was nervous about the change. It turned out that there were a number of mistakes throughout the set of plans that required changes.

arcCA: So one of the first things you did was make a site adaptation! What other changes did you make?

Sylvia Kwan: The kitchen didn’t work where they had put it. It was a good reminder to really study a site and spend time with it. I changed the kitchen location, but I set it—you now know my favorite word—orthogonally. I was really teased for that. I set it in a very symmetrical pattern around a central courtyard. The fire pit was built in the wrong place and we moved that. I kept thinking, “Maybe they are going to grade us on how beautiful this village is.”

arcCA: You’re kidding.

Sylvia Kwan: For example, there were palm fronds that were already knit together for the roof. There were no directions that told us one thing or another. The only clear instructions were, “If you don’t finish this village, the game will not start.”

I reviewed the drawings for a number of things. Number one, where was the prevailing wind coming from? That’s one of the first things that you have to know in an island environment, is that the prevailing wind is a big factor in comfort or total discomfort. So I checked the tops of the trees and the way the palm trees were bending. I wanted to make sure that the shelter roof line responded to the direction of the prevailing wind to protect us from wind and rain.

The second thing I checked was the direction of the sun and how it would come from morning to afternoon, to make sure that the shelter was going to be in shade during the hot parts of the day, and then in the evening the breezes would come through and cool it.

The third thing I checked was that it was very important for the shelter to be level. And thank God, they gave us a level.

arcCA: Did your fellow tribespeople get into reviewing the design?

Sylvia Kwan: Since only a few of us knew anything about building, no. But there were some suggestions about things that we could add to the design to make life more pleasant. For example, we added two horizontal ropes that were used for a clothesline and also some nails to hang things on, but I had to remind them to place them above eye level so they didn’t hurt themselves. In that way, it was similar to reality. The architect figures out the idea and the design review process influences the details.


Sylvia Kwan, of the Ravu tribe, has her torch snuffed out by Jeff Probst, during the third episode of SURVIVOR: FIJI. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

arcCA: Looking back, do you see yourself then as the leader of that effort, and was that maybe a negative thing in the context of the game?

Sylvia Kwan: I learned that what it takes to be a good architect is not the same as what it takes to win a reality TV show and end up being the final survivor.

arcCA: So, the very characteristic that has allowed you to succeed in practice is something that maybe isn’t valued in entertainment. Can you talk a little more about reality versus a reality show?

Sylvia Kwan: All the things that matter in real life and that distinguish you and make you a special person, whether you’re a natural leader or you’re talented or you’re respected for whatever you do, or you’re older and maybe wiser, all those things don’t matter as soon as you pass through the “Alice in Wonderland” door of Survivor. Suddenly all of those things can become a liability.

arcCA: What did you do to prepare for the reality of this non-reality?

Sylvia Kwan: I trained a couple of times with a Boy Scout troop leader to learn how to build shelters, how to lash poles with vines, how to start a fire, and how to identify what’s edible and what’s poisonous.

arcCA: You did this on your own?

Sylvia Kwan: Yes. I was prepared for a much more rudimentary kind of shelter. My husband Denis was also a Boy Scout, and he taught me a lot. We actually built a half-scale model of a shelter on our front lawn. I felt confident that I knew how to build a shelter. But of course, I got there and all that was out the window because of the plans they gave us.

arcCA: Do you think your participation in the show will change or influence a broader public perception of architects?

Sylvia Kwan: I think if you look at the show that I did at Survivor Live, you will hear Jeff Probst, the Survivor host, say something complimentary like, “I cannot think of a single survivor that’s had more influence at the beginning of a show—to get the show rolling—than Sylvia did because of her experience and expertise as an architect, to build this very complicated shelter and village.” I think the public can take away different things from this show. Architects can be practical, they can exhibit leadership, and some of them are women.

arcCA: I think most people understand that architects are involved in aesthetic decisions in designing the building environment. But what else do you think you showed?

Sylvia Kwan: In one way it gets back to basics: health, safety, and welfare. Even in a strange environment like Survivor, those factors come into play.

I think that viewers are going to get that an architect is an organized person who has the ability to visualize. We can put something on a piece of paper and make it a three-dimensional reality, something that looks good, is structurally sound, and protects you. One of the best things about this particular season is that it shows a real architect doing a real project instead of the faux architects you see in movies and on TV. A realistic portrayal of an architect in popular culture has finally been made, albeit by accident.


Sylvia Kwan. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

arcCA: What was your biggest personal challenge?

Sylvia Kwan: Learning to swim. When the casting people approached me in a Los Angeles restaurant, I said, “No, I can’t even swim.” I took lessons, but I really learned when I fell in the ocean because our raft capsized. That was before the show actually began, when they were taking footage of us paddling around the islands. I actually felt exhilarated, because I didn’t panic and was able to swim safely over to the larger boat.

arcCA: How has being on this show influenced your practice?

Sylvia Kwan: It’s a great way to connect. Many of my old clients are eager to talk to me and find out what it was really like. I think our clients are fascinated by how architecture really played a role in this event. I’ve been asked to speak at a professional conference on the topic of building alliances. Isn’t that funny? I think some of the aspects of the show that are not like reality nevertheless actually underscore what is important in practice now. We have to be allied with contractors from the outset, whether it is design/build, CM at risk, or negotiated bid. When I see a logical alliance that’s going to make total sense, and everything just falls into place, we will pursue it. One way that the show changed me, and in turn the practice, is that now I know not to fight so hard. You know, if something isn’t meant to be, it’s not meant to be. I used to knock my head against the wall. If it is a square peg in a round hole and you can’t make it fit, move on, or re-engineer it later after a hiatus and everybody can take a breather.

arcCA: How did going away for seven weeks affect your firm?

Sylvia Kwan: The absence continued something that the firm had already begun. If I had been the CEO, like I used to be, it would have been impossible. We are in the process of transition and making new partners. This was a great opportunity for them to take care of their market area without me hovering around as the go-to person.

arcCA: So, it was a good thing in terms of succession.

Sylvia Kwan: Just like me learning to swim.

arcCA: What else did you find out about yourself?

Sylvia Kwan: What I took for granted as positive traits maybe aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. Those traits don’t benefit you necessarily on a show like this. I found that I could not be deceitful, even though I said I could be for the show. After the second episode aired, my son called me and said, “Mom, my friends and I were saying how clueless you were.” And by that he really meant guileless. Before this show, my idea of camping was to visit our friend’s rustic ranch and stay at the nearest inn. I found out that if I am ever on a deserted island, I probably could survive. I could find food. I could make a fire. I can build a shelter. That kind of knowledge has given me a whole other kind of confidence.

arcCA: Even though you got voted off after the third episode, tell us about a positive moment.

Sylvia Kwan: It sounds sort of hokey, but after we finished the shelter, people began to sing. That reminds you about the power of architecture, even humble architecture.



Confessions of a Design Reviewer: Ten Guidelines for Coming Out as an Architect

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Illustration by Ragina Johnson.

Author Wendy Kohn is a member of the arcCA editorial board and an architectural development consultant. She was previously a commissioner on the Design Review Board for lower downtown Denver and directed the first Colorado Tomorrow conference on sustainable urbanism.


First, let me admit that my appointment to the Lower Downtown Design and Demolition Review Board of Denver, Colorado was, at least initially, like going undercover. Having faced Review Boards myself—designs and ego up there on the dartboard of public review—I jumped at the opportunity to take a seat on the other side of the table. I would adopt a persona befitting a city commissioner, keep my architectural allegiance to myself, and learn all the secrets to keeping one’s best design work intact through a public review process.

The LDDDRB meets for the mandatory review of 200 sq. ft. penthouse pop-ups, the adaptive reuse of existing 1900s-era industrial warehouses, and the new construction of mixed-use buildings on huge 266- by 400-foot city blocks. The review is intended to safeguard and guide the development of one of the most extensive warehouse districts in the country. Nothing can be built in Lower Downtown Denver without this Board’s approval.

I listened respectfully behind my name sign for the first several meetings, as the approval of truly horrific building designs stumbled over minute details, like the material expression of the driveway bollards. Interesting contemporary gestures were universally mocked as “totally incompatible” with the historic context. Architects were cut off mid-sentence with “we really must move on.” I began having grad school flashbacks. Members of the public, usually the neighbors, read repetitive arguments over increased traffic and blocked views. “This is reality,” I kept telling myself. “This is your chance to argue for good design, for diversity, for cities.” But something blocked my arguments inside my head, and they expressed themselves publicly only as hot red cheeks and sweat pouring from my temples, as I was later, embarrassingly, told.

I was amazed to observe that no one in the room was impartial; in each meeting, every single speaker had an agenda. City staff wanted the Board to uphold their internal review and definitively to address any controversial item. Developers, for whom timeframe was fundamental, wanted, first, maximum envelope approval and, then, predictability—no complicated design roadblocks to slow down construction. Individual Board members’ agendas ranged from actively promoting “olde tyme” architecture, to consistently preventing any explicit design critique or advice (which might be construed as a “hint” to the architects) from entering the record. And the public looked to the Board to keep their neighborhood exactly as it looked right now, outside the boardroom window.

As I began to comment, I realized that I had an agenda too. This meant I couldn’t keep my cover, forced me to come out. Like the architect applicants across the table, I needed to be able to talk about architecture as a proponent of the power of design and invention, without being dismissed as grandiose, ethereal, or naive.

I was fascinated by the additive effect of the Board’s decisions: we were incremental urban designers. Although the design guidelines explicitly stated that no single decision could be cited as precedent for future decisions, it was clear that if our decisions were haphazard, the city’s most active and valuable historic precinct would become a jumble.

Therefore, my agenda was to broadly construe the idea of “compatibility” (which appeared in the design guidelines like a nervous tic, even several times a sentence). I considered every submittal for its resounding effect on the shape of the city. Does this design promote an enriched and vital urban life for this neighborhood 50 to 100 years into the future?

Often, initially, I was chided by other Board members “We are not here to discuss philosophy.” It took some time for me to figure out how, without burying all the passion, imagination, and persistence architecture practice breeds in us, to respond to such objections. But the ongoing melee of architectural presentations and their dissection by the Design Review Board finally led me to a conviction.

The key to facing design review as an architect, from either side of the table? Learn how to be an architect in public. It can require different techniques from the work of making buildings, giving lectures and presentations, wooing and working with clients. By the time I finished my term, I looked forward to design review meetings as intensely meaningful, collegial, and powerful discussions of what I most care about: shaping our constructed environment. And I seriously respected my colleagues on the Board.

Here are my top ten guidelines for coming out as an architect in the public realm of design review:

  1. Watch your mouth. You risk alienating your audience merely by using the word “parti.” While a Design Review Board may be responsible for approving your parti, neighborhood residents and at-large members often sit on review boards, and they don’t feel especially confident with designspeak. Don’t waste good will by making your audience work too hard to understand you. Your goal should be to talk architecture in plain language. (It might help to pretend you haven’t been to design school.)
  1. State your design intention and principles early on. At best, the design review process can be collaborative; at worst, adversarial and contentious. One of the greatest pitfalls is the Board’s rejection of fundamental design assumptions late in the design process. The most successful approval I witnessed won universal buy-in from the Board at the very first meeting. The architects outlined their analysis of the site and design issues, presented their basic diagram as a direct response to this analysis, and asked the Board to comment on their “reading” of the city. Throughout the ensuing review sessions, Board members evaluated the design development for its faith to the initial principles—just as did the architects.
  1. Don’t pander. It’s worth understanding the multiple agendas at work, but group discussion is dynamic. As a Board member, I rarely made a motion that hadn’t been influenced by the arguments presented. And remember: Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. It’s not the stock market, but the Board’s focus does shift based upon the previous meeting, politicking in-between meetings, political currents in the city at-large, financial pressures from developers and public agencies, an empty coffee mug, or a rumbling stomach.
  1. Frame the agenda. Your presentation should lead with a clear statement of what approvals you are seeking in that session, what guidelines you have identified as applicable to that design scope, and where you are asking the Board for interpretation or exceptions. You stand to gain from a focused discussion, initiated by you.
  1. Respect time limits. Practice making the big, important points in the time specified. Once time’s up, do not go on. Courtesy goes a long way during long meetings. If limits are unstated, confer with city staff in advance.
  1. Stick to your submittal. Last-minute “updates” of the work you’ve already put before the committee often backfire. Board members and city staff have studied your submittal carefully, or at least have tried to digest it quickly during your presentation. A freak blizzard of design information disorients everyone—and looks like a snow job.
  1. READ THE GUIDELINES. Most guideline documents display all the literary tricks of classical poetry. Read them for metaphor, paradox, tautology, and innuendo. You should know the sections applicable to your design submittal—and the opportunities for interpretation—better than the review board when you present your work.
  1. Don’t bury the evidence. Make drawings that specifically address the guidelines, and clearly identify how your design conforms and where you are asking the Board to grant exceptions. Make diagrams and other drawings to highlight conformance to relevant regulations. It is tempting to downplay what you foresee as the sticking points. But if you try to camouflage the issues, you’ll appear untrustworthy. If you do slip something by the Board, at best you risk costing your client in delays when the oversight is caught later; at worst, you risk the great expense and hassle of a rescinded or appealed approval.
  1. Confer early and often. Seek an advance meeting with city staff to review your proposed design direction, identify applicable design guidelines, and flag potential zoning issues. In most cases, city staff can give you an extremely accurate sense of where to place your effort in preparing for the review process.

It’s also a good idea to attend at least one Board meeting prior to your first submittal. See what the Board is currently focusing on; appraise the most effective presentation methods for the space, room size, and attention spans; observe the nature of Board discussion and questions put to applicants. 10. Respect the process. It can be arduous and annoying, but in most cases design review is an honest attempt to improve the quality of the places we design and inhabit. It requires a partnership between the applicant and the Board, and the respect you show your potential partners will likely be reciprocated. Do the Board the courtesy of making a polished, professional presentation. Do yourself the courtesy of rehearsing the review session and preparing your responses to predictable criticisms. Ideally, design review will not be design defense, but an extended work session with an expanded client group—the public.



The Architecture of Patronage, Part II: The Rise of the Anti-Patron

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Author Mitchell Schwarzer, PhD, is the author of German Architectural Theory (1995), Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media (2004), Architecture of the San Francisco Bay Area: History and Guide (2007), and the upcoming Home Egonomics: America’s Obsession with Real Estate. He is Chair of the Department of Visual Studies at California College of the Arts.


The modernist avant garde project fell apart for the same reason it had come into existence—an inevitable compulsion to challenge any and all authority. The opposition of artists and architects to industrial capitalism was based on the fiction of their possessing higher insight into the reality of modern times, and their assumption of the mantle of truthful cultural transformation from the business and political elites, their onetime patrons. Avant garde artists and architects had sought to become their own patrons, followers of their solo imaginations and magnetic dreamscapes. But, as the times wore on, it became apparent that there was no way to deny such insights to others. Inasmuch as the avant garde edifice was built upon the unique perceptions of the artist or architect, its goal was an emancipation of perception for everyone. This liberation had to be part of a broader liberation of humanity, one that in turn would submerge the avant garde.

The permanent youth rebellion begun in the 1950s in the United States (through such mass media rebels as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley) contains at its core key notions of the avant garde and the bohemian. Later, in the civil rights and student movements and counterculture of the 1960s, opposition and rebellion became a mass phenomenon. Terms like “the establishment” or “the system” came to represent the “other” of popular avant gardism—the little boring man in a gray flannel suit, the cracker riding with a shotgun on a southern road. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, things became less black and white. Opposition began to point here, there, and everywhere. Amid the woman’s-, gay-, disabled-, elderly-, animal-, environmental-, and men’s-rights movements, insurrection was mainstreamed. It was not long afterward that it was commodified.

Over the past fifteen years, in an era when Marx and Malcolm are out of vogue and DeCaprio and Xena brushstroke the nation’s youth culture, big business is acutely aware that bohemian rumples and avant garde insurrection sells. A commercial for Miller Beer features shelled hipsters in a sub-normal, basketball suburbia grooving to the music of tasteless beer. The Gap tells us that since Kerouac and Cassidy wore khakis, their intoxications and ramblings can be zipped into ours. Nike advertises athletic shoes through juxtapositions of alienation and otherness that are the perverse legacy of Dali and Beuys. And Apple Computers, in the most famous television commercial of all time, acquired cyber-coolness by smashing the Goliath of big brother; somehow, if you use a Macintosh you will think differently.

But have industrialists gained the upper hand in the arts? Are the art and architectural worlds now led by the titans of Disney, IBM, and McDonalds? Are billionaires like Larry Ellison and Bill Gates commissioning cutting-edge works of architecture? With few exceptions, the answer is no. Corporate sponsorship of the arts has not replaced the one-to-one relationship between patron and artist that existed before the avant garde rebellion. That earlier relationship had created an urbane and humanistic culture in the West, a set of works of art and architecture that were able to represent their societies precisely because those societies were more homogeneous, hierarchical, and far less pluralistic. Current arts and architectural patrons generally have much narrower ambitions and much more complex scenarios to contend with: including the rainbow of people excluded from the earlier white-male embrace of patron and artist.

Today, patrons like the Medici or even the Carnegies are rare, almost impossible. Business decisions are no longer the product of a single voice or family, one working long-term in the same place to produce a consistent product. Patrons in that old sense had sought immortality in beautiful art and redemption through majestic works of architecture. Old style mercantile and later industrial patronage implied an admission of guilt in contributing to society’s problems and a large measure of responsibility for fixing them. By contrast, today’s service- and information-oriented economy admits no guilt and takes scant responsibility. The buzz from these industries is superficial hipness. Since companies seek almost nothing but profits and utility, why would they deeply invest in beauty and pleasure? Contemporary business looks at art from the point of view of sponsorship, not patronage. Companies are interested in how architecture and art can help sales, and yet what sells is determined most by market research. The visual arts are icing on a greenback cake.

The idea of either patron or artist as guide to society’s future is anachronistic. Neither has the upper hand in dictating the nature of reality. Both are caught alike in a web of opposition and rebellion. It’s almost as if art and architecture have entered a neo-Middle Ages.

Alongside the commodification of avant garde rebellion and the transformation of patronage into sponsorship is a repudiation of avant garde creation, privilege, and freedom. Within the art and architectural worlds, the now-historical avant garde has been attacked as institution. Outside, artists and architects are opposed by the emergence of a curious anti-avant garde—the critical public, composed of hypersensitive viewers, over-users, nosy neighbors, all-too-special interest groups, and endlessly-proliferating lawyers. A century of celebration of marginality has opened the gates for an assault from the margins. The promotion of excess has invoked excessive intervention into the works of artists and architects. Avant garde opposition to middle-class entitlement has become public opposition against any and all privilege, including that of artistic and architectural experiment.

Nowadays, bold and radical plans are suspect. Grand designs to refashion urban movement, audacious sculptures to reconceive public space, and all manner of artistic schemes to reorient or disorient perception are combatted and squelched by coalitions whose unity is based on mortared oppositional consciousness. In a world where everyone’s a potential patron or artist, critical avant garde concepts like progress and originality are upended 180 degrees. The new tired buzzwords are context, convention, and community. The anti-patron has arrived.

Anti-patrons do not generally commission art or architecture. Instead, they throw design guidelines and lawsuits in the path of change. For a new museum to get built, for a bridge to be designed, or for an outdoor sculpture to be installed, it must run a steeplechase of interest groups and weightless bureaucracies. Art and architecture are subject to review and redesign by committees, public meetings, as well as opinion polls. The nation’s patron, the National Endowment for the Arts, is more famous for the attacks mounted against radical art than for its paltry financial support of art. Even at the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, epitome of old-time patronage, neighborhood groups forced changes in building massing and the color of cladding materials. Why should the reflected glare of art ruin anyone’s afternoon at the backyard swimming pool?

Over the past quarter-century, the once self-contained relationship of artist and patron has been riven by pluralistic and confrontational cross currents. The arts are understood less as a foundation or critique of reality than as an immersion within reality’s fractured existence and polarizing eccentricities. Thus, while visual artists no longer represent dominant societal interests, as they did during the great age of artistic patronage, they can no longer claim exclusivity in confronting those interests. It’s hard to be spectacularly oppositional when the numbed gloss of combat holds court on the Jerry Springer show and the Kenneth Starr inquisition.

Who, then, has an oppositional voice today? Can critical insights be heard in a sea of shouting individuals? Are avant garde movements passé? Must art and architecture find new directions, apart from the accomplice of patrons or the antagonism of the avant gardes?

A future that seems inescapable is ongoing artistic confrontation with mass society. But because the arts can no longer be detached from overall cultural production, because artists and architects are knotted with sponsors and critics and viewers, this confrontation will be different from those of the past. It will not be a pure, heroic struggle for utopia. Instead, it will take place increasingly on a flat, cliché-ridden terrain, one that is less metaphysical landscape than meta-textual media-scape. After all, the earlier axes between artist and patron or artist vs. society have multiplied into swarming vectors. The world is gray and stained. The ragged constellations of the mass consumer and culture industry are now the insufferable yet inseparable relationship for art and architecture.

In Early Modern Europe, in the epoch of patronage, the visual arts became an open system, a set of journeys toward beauty reasoned atop a changing world. Later, in the age of the avant garde, the traces of this system released other trajectories that obliterated their own foundations and contours as they exploded toward new insights. For the future, it would be naive to think that anyone could turn down the heat generated by centuries of such activity. Enmeshed in the diversity and contradiction that are the postmodern condition, art and architecture are perpetually boiling over, regardless of who pays the heating bill.



Design Review: Editor’s Comment

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2007 in arcCA 07.2, “Design Review.”]


Tribal Council = Design Review? A scene from Survivor, with San Francisco architect Sylvia Kwan, FAIA, second from left. Photo courtesy of CBS.


A year ago, for our second quarter “architect in the community” issue, we focused on Los Angeles, site of that year’s AIA National Convention. This year we focus on the Bay Area. The reason this time is not temporal but topical: this issue of arcCA is devoted to Design Review, a process for which San Francisco and surrounding communities are noted—or, one might say, notorious.

In this issue, you will find three perspectives on design review in San Francisco: a highly critical appraisal by development and planning consultant David Prowler (originally published in the newsletter of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), January 2007); a story of a series of design workshops presented to the San Francisco Planning Commission on behalf of AIA San Francisco; and some encouraging front-line experiences of design review by architect Owen Kennerly, AIA.

As background for these studies of design review, we offer two complementary historical perspectives by two of California’s premier architectural historians, David Gebhard and Mitchell Schwarzer.

You will also find other Bay Area-centric articles: a proposal for “Design Review Guidelines Guidelines” by San Mateo architect Ellis Schoichet, AIA; an interview with San Francisco architect Sylvia Kwan, FAIA, who was a contestant on this season’s Survivor; AIA San Francisco’s selection of the city’s best-loved buildings, reported by John King, urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle; an elegant and economical renovation for the East Oakland School of the Arts, by San Francisco’s Stoner Meek Architecture and Urban Design (in “Under the Radar”); and, for our “Coda,” a brief look at changing design review criteria, as seen in mid-twentieth century and early twenty-first century additions to a late-nineteenth century San Francisco landmark.

We also look at a landscape much-neglected by the architectural press: that of the suburban office park, reflecting on the role of design review in the formation of the Sand Hill Road Corridor in Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

And, as always, we try to have at least one nutsy-boltsy, how-to article, this one on how best to behave at a design review hearing, Wendy Kohn’s “Confessions of a Design Reviewer.”



Coda: Alfred Eichler, 1895-1977

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[Originally published 3rd Quarter 2007, in arcCA 07.3, “Comparing Awards.”]

Above is a rendering by Alfred Eichler of the gymnasium that he designed at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility (formerly the Whittier State Reformatory for Boys and Girls), built in 1933. From 1925 to 1964, Eichler was an architect in California’s Office of the State Architect, where he designed, among many others, buildings at Patton State Hospital (1926) and Stockton State Hospital (1946); the Boys Dormitory (1930) and other buildings at California School for the Blind at Berkeley; the Long Beach Armory (1930); Quarantine Inspection Stations at Fort Yuma (1930), Crescent City (1936), and Blythe (1939); Cell Block #3 at Folsom Prison (1934); the architectural design for Sacramento’s Tower Bridge (1935); the Natatorium at California State University, San Luis Obispo (1936); and numerous buildings at the Veterans Home of California at Yountville, including the Mess Hall, Bakery, and Administration Building of 1947.

Eichler is the author of innumerable drawings and paintings in pencil, ink, and gouache of work by the Office of the State Architect, including the design for an exhibit mural of OSA projects shown in the introduction to Celebrating a Century of California Architecture, which is being published in tandem with this issue of arcCA. Many of Eichler’s drawings are held at the California State Archives, where they are available for viewing by request, and at the Golden State Museum in Sacramento.



The California Architectural Foundation: Exploring Sustainable Solutions

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[Originally published 3rd Quarter 2007, in arcCA 07.3, “Comparing Awards.”]

Author Lance Bird, FAIA, is President of the California Architectural Foundation.

All members of the American Institute of Architects, California Council are automatically members of the California Architectural Foundation. A small amount of your AIACC dues supports the efforts of the CAF. I’d like to tell you a bit more about your “investment.”

Founded in 1979, the California Architectural Foundation promotes excellence in architecture though scholarships, grants, and education programs and bridges the gap between the academic and professional worlds. Committed to making stronger and more effective connections between students and schools, planners and professionals, the Foundation cultivates the resources and creativity necessary to forge these links.

We also believe in the necessity of training and practice through education and the importance of public awareness activities. Through the annual Mel Ferris Scholarship, we have supported over 50 outstanding university students in California* who need financial assistance to complete their architectural education.

Ten years ago, after the passing of renowned architect William Turnbull Jr., FAIA, the Foundation Regents initiated a special environmental education grant, as a tribute to his legacy. The William Turnbull, Jr., FAIA Environmental Education Grant program fosters the public’s awareness of the relationship between the built and natural environments. This program has supported a number of community programs, including the San Diego Zoological Society, the California Preservation Foundation, and the Greenspace Cambria Land Trust. This year, thanks to the generosity of architectural firms, individual contributors, and corporate supporters, we supported the Great Valley Center’s efforts to help our communities think about building a livable future by sponsoring publication of Our Valley…Our Choice (which was reviewed in last quarter’s arcCA).

The Foundation is continuing its efforts to emphasize this connection with the “Off Grid” competition. The 24-hour life of the urban fabric of our communities is affecting not only the natural environment, but human health and well being. As the human “footprint” continues to expand, issues surrounding sustainability rise to the forefront. The Foundation challenges architects, students, designers, planners, and all interested individuals to develop solutions to reduce the environmental impacts on our planet, slow urban sprawl, and discover innovative ways to effectively reuse existing resources. “Off Grid: Ideas for a Carbon Neutral Future” is an open ideas competition that will provide possible solutions for an urban infill site in Northern California. Through this competition, the Foundation is exploring new ways to combat old problems. All of this cannot happen without support. The Foundation relies on private donations in order to make its programs realized. By making a contribution today, you can help build the communities and architects of tomorrow. Visit www.aiacc.org—“California Architectural Foundation” for more information.

* including one current arcCA editorial board member. (Editor’s note)


As a student facing an ever-increasing burden to obtain the financing for an education, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the California Architectural Foundation (CAF) for awarding me with the Mel Ferris Scholarship. I greatly appreciate the award money the scholarship has endowed as it allows me many new possibilities to further explore my education. Because of the generosity of the California Architectural Foundation, I have been provided the opportunity to focus more time and energy towards a valuable education as opposed to struggling to acquire the funding for it.

~ Ricky Hele

I would like to thank the AIACC and the California Architectural Foundation for selecting me as a recipient of the Mel Ferris Scholarship. Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona is a rigorous and strict major. The stern curriculum and competitive environment leave no time for a part time job. The expenses of tuition, supplies, transportation, and rent cause a great deal of financial stress. Now I can happily concentrate and focus my time on my education without the burdens of towering expenses. I can now spend time improving my portfolio in hopes of landing a summer job at a respected architectural firm.

~ Stephen Nieto, Cal Poly Pomona

It is a great honor to be a recipient of the Mel Ferris Scholarship. The financial help that the scholarship gave me can be shown in the time that I can now put into my studies without the constant concern of how I might support myself. The ability to design with the opportunity to use different materials and equipment that were out of reach before getting this award is priceless. This scholarship is a very important milestone in my education; it supports my achievements in so many different aspects.

~ Ron Elad, SCI-Arc



Thank You For Submitting

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments

[Originally published 3rd Quarter 2007, in arcCA 07.3, “Comparing Awards.”]


First published in arcCA 01.1, “Awarding Honor,” first quarter 2001.

If you have been unsuccessful in your attempts to win a design award for your work, you might reasonably conclude that the projects that do get chosen to receive awards are selected either as a result of a worldwide conspiracy mounted against you and your firm, or, worse yet, pre-determined even before anyone sends in their entry fees. Having participated numerous times as a juror, a recipient, and more recently as an observer of a number of design awards programs, I find myself in a position to dispel the fears of bias, conspiracies, and fate and replace them with some common sense about how to submit your work.


First, the bad news. Generally, only great design work wins design awards. If your project’s primary asset is energy conservation, submit it to an energy awards program unless it also has spectacular architectural design, then submit it to both. Design jurors take their responsibility very seriously and are extremely careful in their selections to ensure that every awarded project exhibits an extraordinary level of design excellence. Jurors are as rigorous in their selection process as they are in their own design work. In fact, they often view their selection as a reflection on their own standards and reputations, which, of course, no one takes lightly.


Don’t worry about the jury composition; again, good work wins awards. Poor work does not. Submitting work that you think looks like something a particular juror might appreciate should not be your motivation. In fact, issues of particular styles, languages, and forms almost never get discussed, because the focus of deliberations is typically more fundamental than that. Instead, urban design/site planning/social innovation, plan/section ingenuity, and technological/craft issues tend to dominate the discourse. Therefore, submit work because you feel it is strong, and present it so the jury can recognize that.


Have someone from the project’s design team participate in writing and assembling the submission. While there are many talented marketing and business development people in firms, design awards are given by a jury of designers, and your presentation should be crafted to speak to that audience on a very professional level. Be sure to be generous in crediting all parties who participated in helping realize the project. And follow all the rules. Obvious oversights, such as the firm name being visible on an image, have eliminated many submittals from even being considered. 


Provide the jury with all the basic visual information they need to understand the project. This sounds obvious, but many submittals create a huge challenge for the jurors to figure out what it is they are supposed to evaluate. For instance, if the project is an addition to an existing place or structure, show this clearly with before and after photographs or simple clear diagrams. In last year’s AIACC Design Awards, there was only one submittal that used graphic parti diagrams to explain the schemes intentions. Assume nothing. In fact, test your images on someone who doesn’t know the project and say nothing. This is how the jury gets their first look.


Write simply or clearly without hyperbole. I realize this is something that doesn’t come naturally to us, but we need to improve our abilities in this area. After 200 or so project statements are read to the jury with each submittal touting its own design as timeless, innovative, forward looking, contextual, and client responsive, the jurors long for simple, informative statements that compliment the images they are looking at while these words are read. Think about the forces that shaped the project that are not visible in the images, and use this opportunity to reveal them. These forces could include anything from cost constraints to community process.


Use photographs that actually show the project in use. Since the jurors can’t visit the projects, this is a great way to show them that your theories work in practice and also a way to reveal aspects of the projects that are only evident when people occupy the spaces. A staircase that gets used as an impromptu amphitheatre at an elementary school, a translucent wall that is animated by people moving behind it, a view out to a landscaped vignette that is only visible once someone sits down are examples of the types of information that jurors will not understand without images to support these designed experiences.


Always resubmit. Every jury is different and every pool of entries is different. 350 entries that only include 15 affordable housing projects make a jury hunger for that building type and review those submittals extra carefully. Since you can’t control the mix, resubmitting a project two or three times is a good strategy. You’ve already done all the work to put the presentation together, so recoup some of the investment by using it more than once: submit it at local, state and national levels in AIA, industry specific, government, and magazine awards programs. Let the rejections be like water off a duck’s back. Keep doing what you think is the best work you can do, and keep submitting it.



Presentation Is Everything

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments

[Originally published 3rd Quarter 2007, in arcCA 07.3, “Comparing Awards.”]


AIA Los Angeles Awards Exhibition, photo by Grace Lau.

Authors: Hraztan S. Zeitlian, AIA, is Vice President/Director of Design at Leo A Daly, Los Angeles. He has been an AIA LA Awards Committee member since 2005, acting as 2006 Co-Chair and 2007 Chair. Alex Anamos, AIA, is Studio Director/Senior Associate at KAA Design Group in Marina del Rey. He has been an AIA LA Awards Committee member since 2004, acting as 2007 Co-Chair. Julie D. Taylor is Principal of Taylor & Company: Communication for Creative Industries in Los Angeles. She is a professional affiliate member of AIA LA and AIACC, and has been an AIA LA Awards Committee member since 2006.


The truth is: awards programs are beauty contests. There, we said it, even though we hate to admit it. Buildings, after all, are complicated endeavors, and the best buildings fulfill programmatic requirements while possessing layers of artistic and conceptual ideas that can only be fully appreciated as an experience. Yet, it is impossible for an awards jury to visit every project in person. Thus, we depend on images—beautiful, sweeping, colorful, seductive images. This is why we maintain that Presentation Is Everything. And why we want to open the conversation about how to best judge architecture.

Or are we really just judging architectural images? No matter the method—binders, boards, on-line—how the project is presented to the jury becomes almost as important as what is presented. We’ve observed many juries, and though each has its particular proclivities, the similar factor is that they can only judge what they’re presented.

The binder presentation has been the stable stalwart for many years. It makes sense, in that seeing it in books and magazines is how most of us experience architecture. A project information sheet and prescribed number of photos and drawings of completed work, or renderings for unbuilt work, are the common denominators. Depending on the specifics of the competition or category—environmental, lighting, historic preservation, urban planning—there may be supplemental information or additional photos or diagrams. There is little leeway for creative presentation: putting several images on one page or spreading one gorgeous horizontal photo across two pages are the scant options.

Logistically, the binders are easy for the entrants. They can be prepared by marketing departments, public relations consultants, and junior staff. They are easy to transport. But how functional are they for a jury? As a book, they can efficiently be reviewed by one person at a time. They’re passed from one juror to the next, usually leaving communal conversation to the finalist stage. And, how often are those densely written one-page (seven-point type?) project descriptions actually read? Not until the final round, unless the images are so compelling, or completely mystifying, to pique the judge’s interest.

For many years, Los Angeles AIA chapter members were required to create both binders and display boards. These boards were not intended for judging, but for display in an exhibition that would travel to area architecture schools and public spaces. This raises a question about the purpose of entering awards programs. Winning the award, of course, is the ultimate reason for entering. You gain prestige, certificates for the wall, increased morale in the studios, opportunities for media coverage, and the ability to use “award-winning” to describe your practice or projects. There is a greatly added amenity in the exhibition—the work is seen by colleagues, press, academics, students (great for recruiting), and potential clients. This is a big motivator in our chapter to enter.

For the past few years, AIA LA’s program has focused solely on board presentation, increasing the board size to accommodate more information. This was—and continues to be—a controversial move. The 42” x 30” board must have it all: images, text, drawings, supplemental information. It can be an opportunity for clarity as much as for confusion. It adds a critical layer to the process: graphic design. A major concern with board presentation is that it almost transforms an architecture study into a graphic one. The board raises questions of composition that are absent from binder or on-line submissions. Does the board explain the project well enough? Does it reinterpret the project, making it something altogether different? The board itself can become a piece of conceptual architecture in its own right. As entrants struggle to represent tremendous amounts of information in a relatively small space, they may either go the horror vacui collage route or the iconic mono-image mode. The jury, we have found, is looking for something in between.

Compared to binders, boards may be more taxing to the entrant, but are somewhat easier and more dynamic for the jury. No matter, the mantra stays the same: Presentation Is Everything. With one jury day and 200+ entries, judges very quickly determine if projects are “worthy for future discussion.” You have one opportunity to show the project, so the board has to grab the jury’s attention immediately. Everything has to be sexy, sexy, sexy—from each individual image to how they all come together on the board. The hierarchy of information on the board is also critical. From the prize-winning view, to all the supporting imagery that provides greater insight into the project, each piece of information should be gorgeous and compelling to first attract the judges and then to hold their attention.

We’re not saying that the architecture isn’t the main consideration in the end—no amount of graphic design prowess can make bad architecture into an award-winner—but we all respond visually. It’s rare to hear a juror say, “the representation is bad, but the building design is so compelling that this project gets an award!” But we have heard many jurors say that they suspect a building is much better than what the images show or that the images are so bad they don’t deserve to be considered. (That’s if they’re not familiar with the project to begin with, as many a juror has stated, “I know this entry board is awful, but I know this building, and it is good architecture.”)

Boards resemble pin-ups, which is how architects are accustomed to looking at work throughout school and during design reviews. From a communal discussion standpoint, the boards are very helpful. Jurors can spread them out across the room and compare the buildings in open—sometimes contentious— discussion. And that, after all, is what a jury session is to be about. Once in the final round, the presentation concerns diminish, and the real issues—design, architecture, context, program—hold sway.

Now, the Los Angeles chapter is considering moving from printed awards boards to a purely digital entry. Is this the great equalizer? The formatting and presentation would be taken out of the hands of the entrant, and put into the control of the chapter. There could be an opportunity to structure the entries so that site plans, floor plans, and contextual responses are scrutinized more thoroughly, similar to how binder entries were once reviewed. The “beauty shot” will still get a project into the later rounds of judging, but many think that fatal flaws in potential winners will be easier to recognize and discuss when there is more equal formatting.

Other potential benefits: online presentation allows for major cost savings in the submission process; web-savvy younger firm members can easily apply; juries can preview entrants; juries can take place “virtually,” saving the chapter travel funds. Some online submissions call for a PowerPoint format, which allows for the communal slide show (ironically harking way back to slide-submission days). However, viewing image after image—with no way to spread them out together—almost dematerializes the architecture, making it bits and pieces rather than a contextual whole. It’s even more problematic to compare different projects to each other. Having a small board for judging could alleviate that (the AIA National Committee on the Environment requires a board for the Top Ten Green Projects submission). A supplemental board could then be exhibited, akin to the LA chapter’s binders/ boards combination, and the bonus of added exposure could be maintained. Without a supplemental board for judging, an exhibition can still be mounted, focusing on winning entries.

Is there a way to present work objectively? There is work that lends itself to looking great on boards. There is work that needs to be discovered through several pages of a binder, one detail at a time. But who ever said objectivity is part of judging? When we create our juries, we look for responsible, respected practitioners who view work with critical insight. Entrants must bear in mind that jurors are keenly aware that their judgment is, in turn, going to be judged. The juries we’ve observed take their roles very seriously, and, in the end, reward those projects they deem architecturally worthy. By definition, they have to make difficult— and sometimes quick—decisions, which can be swayed by any number of factors. The ultimate fact is that the project can’t win if it doesn’t at least become a finalist. At that stage, especially, the quality of every piece of information is critical in determining the difference between the winners and almost-winners. These projects are looked at closely, discussed thoroughly, and argued about passionately by jurors who have given their time to reward powerful, inventive, meaningful—and beautiful—architecture.