David Baker Architects

Street Logic PDF IconDbp-12'95-eastbay'x-streetlogic


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By Alfredo Botello
East Bay Express
December 1995

Coarsely stated, Telegraph is a densely occupied, mixed-use commercial/residential strip. In other words, shops and restaurants below, apartments above. Typically having no side setbacks, the buildings make for an uninterrupted, "hard" sidewalk edge, enlivened by trees and pockets of on-street parking. The general layout and architecture of Telegraph furnish textbook examples of the pedestrian scale and unique, layered sense of place advocated by proponents of today's popular "New Urbanism," the moniker given to what is in essence an old idea: varying uses, proximity to public transportation, crowds of people, and an atmosphere of intimate history.

The architecture of the Avenue is grab-bag ad-hocism of the hang-a-sign-and-open-a-store variety. Its skyline is defined by several modest three- to five-story brick and stucco buildings, some sporting an occasional handsome, unexpected detail: an Ionic corbel here, a terra-cotta crest there. Sandwiched, for instance, between the hair salon Options and Annapurna (a slightly different kind of head shop), is the curiously rococo entry to a building which once billed itself as the "Palazzo."

Nearby, a few interesting face-lifts have been pulled off recently, most notably the flatware-cum-mosaic columns of Futura and Berkeley Beach's swimming pool tile facade framed by murals depicting American Indians, ancient Egyptians, and astronauts...hmm, I smell conspiracy (and it probably involves the windowless PG&E substation further down the street). At the Durant corner, Noah's Bagels has added cheap breakfast and a slice of New York Yiddish retro kitsch to the Avenue's smorgasbord. Even the long-dormant former Miller's Outpost building is undergoing a renovation that looks promising. And, of course, Telegraph has its less obvious idiosyncrasies, ranging from the Whitney Museum-ish stepped wall of Moe's to the interior alleyway jogs of the Sather Gate Mall.

Admittedly, architecture is just a backdrop, but it is hardly a neutral one. It is a container which can either support or frustrate a neighborhood's social content, its elusive street logic. Most of Telegraph's buildings are lackluster as far as glossy photo-ops go, but they generally function well in support of the Avenue's vivaciousness. Large display windows underscore the primacy of people-watching, narrow street frontages allow for a broad mix of rent-affordable stores, and the wide, undulating sidewalks provide room for street vendors. Even in those places where the sidewalk is less than accommodating, street logic sometimes overwhelms spatial limitations, as in front of the Cafe Meditertaneum, where stepping into traffic is often the only way past the phalanx of the café's motley patrons. (Unfortunately, the reverse is true in the case of the Uncle Ralph's/ Tower complex, where a generous sidewalk lacking any complementary public amenity has become dead space.) The two-lane blacktop of Telegraph is narrow enough to encourage the aggressive jaywalking that helps make the street feel like it was designed around foot, not vehicular, traffic. Even the asphalt-encircled median at Dwight fulfills its intention: it actually is used as a sort of mini-park.

All in all, the Avenue represents the kind of planning horse-sense first brought to the public mind by Jane Jacob's eloquent 1961 plea to urban planners, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jacobs carefully described what it is that makes us gush about that noisy, crowded, cobblestone street in Paris, and why the American downtown was in danger of becoming a wistful reminiscence. Early in the introduction she summarized the "ubiquitous principle" of good city streets which she then went on to define and defend in the rest of the text. It is "the need.for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially."

Some thirty years later, her work still resonates. A fifteen-page cover spread in the May 15 Newsweek criticized suburban sprawl and offered a checklist of New Urb improvements. On the tube, a recent 60 Minutes segment sympathetically portrayed one small town's attempts to block a Wal-Mart that proposed to move in on the edge of town. Residents of the town noted that convenient parking and a few pennies saved on underwear simply do not warrant the death of Main Street.

As Jacobs pointed out, realizing a dense, mixed-use street like Telegraph is no mean feat. Compare it for example, with two other prominent East Bay neighborhood commercial pockets. Fourth Street near the Marina and College Avenue in Rockridge. There are broad similarities among the three stemming from their common typology: a mixed-use street framing two lanes of traffic. But College Avenue and Fourth Street are thoroughfares, while Telegraph terminates at the university. The edge of Fourth Street, broken by varying setbacks and the occasional parking lot is a relatively "soft" one in contrast to the harder edge of the other two more heavily trafficked streets. The mixed uses of College and Fourth Street are horizontally arranged, with residential side streets giving onto a commercial strip, whereas Telegraph is vertically organized. These readily identifiable differences are worth noting as they contribute to the unique appeal of each street, but they do little to explain why one would never confuse the three.

The unquantifiable character of each street is to be found in qualities beyond the scope of planning and zoning departments. Fourth Street is about atmosphere by association, in this case, the trappings of blue-collar funkiness. The whistle of a passing train, the praying-mantis scaffold of a nearby factory, and a glut of corrugated tin warehouses reek of Joe Lunchpail Cool and provide ample inspiration for local neopopulist architecture. Fourth Street itself, however, is the gentleman's looking glass, a place from which to gaze at one's surroundings without being of them. How else to explain the outlandish price tag on that salvaged Bolivian Hutch?

The three-block strip is an oasis of cozy, soft architecture, soft voices, slow strolls, and pleasant people. It's all just so gosh darn nice. This distinguishes it decisively from Telegraph. Fourth Street is a middle-class refuge in a sometimes spooky neighborhood, whereas Telegraph is that spooky area. Where College and Fourth Street tolerate the neurotic fringe, Telegraph invites it.

Like Fourth Street, College Avenue caters to a fairly specific clientele, but is more of a border stop than an island. Its location at the foot of the hills calls attention to one of the oldest and most venerated patterns in residential settlement: that is, wealthy folks up high, the muck and riffraff below. Steep, narrow, relatively inaccessible roads safeguard against that conductor of uncertainty, public transportation. Of course, it is just such thick and lively muck that is missing from the narcotic haze of those exclusive residential hill neighborhoods, and helps account for weekend migrations southward to the flat...er, mildly sloping lands where College Avenue merchants await.

The architecture of College Avenue is Telegraph as reworded by Thomas Bowdler. It, too, is eclectic, with a few funky spots, but generally it's in much better condition and features a larger number of high-end polished structures. That the feel of College Avenue shares little with Telegraph should come as no surprise. Both College Avenue and Fourth Street were relatively stable populations, while Telegraph functions as a revolving door through which 35,000 people enter and exit UC Berkeley. It is also no secret that mild weather, coupled with humane cops, attracts an uncounted and shifting number of people who live, literally, at street level. Add to this the weekend warriors from Oakland and the burbs, and one thing becomes clear: Telegraph knows from turnover. It is a street much closer in spirit to that of a large metropolis than either College Avenue or Fourth Street. The scale may be Main Street, but the anonymity and density are pure Gotham City. Critics of such anonymity characterize it as hostile indifference, but I prefer to emphasize the liberating appeal of big city social life, free from that Mayberry brand of nauseatingly well-intentioned nosiness.

Indeed history shows that the general lesson of Telegraph will always hold true: a well-used, truly heterogeneous street which ends in a significant something is a natural place for concentrated activity. Even without the University and added police presence after dark, Telegraph would still possess a formidable amount of charm: after all, a Mario's La Fiesta $3.80 Super Burrito would still be a Mario's La Fiesta $3.80 Super Burrito.

Telegraph's buildings alone may not go a very long way to explain the street's appeal, but as the most obvious and stable form of the street's context, they merit closer scrutiny. The machinations of city hall, developers, and lenders dictate a street's well-being much more than do its buildings, but buildings are the most tangible evidence of these machinations. They allow us to make fairly accurate spot diagnoses. Dilapidated facades and boarded-up storefronts, for example, testify unequivocally to the ailing health of Shattuck and (especially) University avenues.

Of the Telegraph buildings completed in the last ten years, three in particular have proven to be especially adept at enhancing the avenue's street logic: Café Milano (on Bancroft just off Telegraph), Cody's Books, and the Bison Brewery/Olympic Building. These three projects by San Francisco architect David Baker constitute the street's finest infusion of self-consciously "High Design" infill work. They have become icons of the Avenue, increasing its overall imageability, and this has proven to be smart for business. Café Milano proprietor Sandy Boyd goes as far as to say that "David [Baker] deserves credit for teaching neighborhood shopkeepers the value of architecture to a business."

Following Boyd's lead, merchants have become wise to the PR value of a catchy image. Rasputin Records owner Ken Sarachan commissioned two former Baker apprentices, Mark Edgar and Mark Thieme, to design Telegraph's latest bauble: the classically proportioned, deco-columned steel and glass cube at the corner of Durant.

"David really softened the way for us," says Edgar candidly. Specifically, he softened the way for designers looking to engage Telegraph with work befitting the Avenue's peculiar intensity. In architectural terms, it is an intensity born of contrast. A street full of look-at-me's like the Bison or Rasputin's would be overwhelming, even dull. But these buildings, like Telegraph itself, surprise and delight because they stand next to and sometimes irk their better-behaved neighbors.

Critically, Baker's work has been received with singular ambivalence. Few gush and few bash. The standard line in the architecture community is that Baker's projects are fun, lively, popular, but not really on par with the efforts of the A-list big guns. His buildings have been described in the trade press as "aggressively architectural." They have been characterized as featuring "pragmatism plus pranksterism," "industrial primitivism," and "a sort of high style, fragmented form of postmodernism." They have been said to be "pastiches of applied antics rather than integrated, overall schemes," lacking rigor and suffering from a "grasshopper quality."

Still, whether one likes Baker's work or not, it is a valuable object lesson in architectural sensitivity—Cody's, Milano, and Bison show how innovative, successful buildings can reflect a conservative respect for street life. Measuring success in architecture is invariably a thorny undertaking, but if a continually full house and no shortage of streetside polemical opinions about that house are any indication, these three buildings are whopping successes. (One well-known anecdote recounts the story of a woman who paid for protected parking every day just for the privilege of writing her novel in Milano.)

In part, the success of these projects is just good fortune: a café, a book shop, and a bar are facilities well suited to the goal of intensifying street life. But this is an opportunity without warranty: translating good potential into good architecture still requires no small talent.

Some of Baker's decorative conceits wear a little thin, as in the case of the Cody's pre-shattered window—a relatively inelegant allusion to the street's riot parties compared with the brazen invitation of the Rasputin's glazed box or the Bank of America anti-vandal bricked-in panels. But let's leave the nits alone. At the level of basic organization, Milano, Cody's, and The Bison building judiciously preserve norms of the hard edge, height limit, and entry inflection. The wedge-like frontage of the Bison, for example, is something of an unconventional form, but in effect this complex of buildings modestly continues the massing of its neighbors. Contrast it with the Village Mall further up the block which, while sporting overly user-friendly "regional" materials like brick and wood shingle, is much more radical in its treatment of the street: it internalizes the sidewalk, rendering a public space semi-private. This introverted attitude toward the street is even more pronounced in the student dorm complexes. By turning their back to the sidewalk with a bulwark of battered retaining walls, they accentuate the separation of gown from town. Telegraph's confrontations may be uncomfortable, but an architecture which avoids them misses the Avenue's logic completely.

Cody's, Milano, and Bison also exhibit a common-sense understanding that a good street does not roll up its sidewalks when the work day ends. Baker's canny promotional literature includes postcards featuring images of all three Telegraph buildings at night. After dark, Milano's sky-framing columns present their celluloid drama: deChirico by way of Hugh Ferris. This has been carried to an even more wonderfully illogical extreme at Rasputin's. Further down the street, Cody's Café is unfortunately gone, but the magazine greenhouse still feels lively and inviting after dark. At Bison, simple floodlight transforms the wall above the trellis into an abstract canvas, an apt decorative indulgence in a place dedicated to beer on a street where the Jim Rose circus Sideshow wouldn't raise a pierced eyebrow.

In the design community, contextualism has been a key buzz word since the early 70's, yet it is an uncomfortably fuzzy creature whose contours elude a straightforward definition. This isn't too surprising, as contextualism is not a true "-ism" : it lacks the vitriolic manifesto, eponymous museum show, associated school, and subsequent backlash. Typically associated with large-scale infill development, it seems to have something to do with sensitivity to place, with fitting in and borrowing from the architectural vocabulary of local precedent, but these are vague, insinuated criteria.

For the designer whose work is focused on a single building and not a master plan or city block, contextuality can be a diffused, impotent philosophy, something along the lines of "If it feels good, do it." Every designer can proclaim himself a contextualist in the sense that he is responding specifically to a given situation, whether by deference or strident contrast. The Transamerica Pyramid was maligned upon completion for being an alien body in its environment, but since then it has become an inviolable element of San Francisco's context-along with the Golden Gate Bridge, it individualizes the city's skyline. I predict a similar fate for the Rasputin's building.

It must be remembered that contextualism was formulated as a strategy of repair: its real import lies in its opposition to the more radical propositions of Modernist urban design. A renewed interest in respect for context grew out of a general Jacobs-inspired critique of the tower-in-the-park schemes of the '20s which devolved into the opprobrious urban renewal projects and dead Main Streets of the '60s and '70s. As evidenced by the current "Urban Revisions" show at the University Art Museum, the mood of today's designers is conciliatory, focused on attempts to somehow salvage the expressway detritus of the recent past. What was so distressing about the envisioned future cities of LeCorbusier or Ludwig Hilberseimer was not so much the buildings themselves as the strategy of erasure preceding them. LeCorbusier's Plan Voisin did not augment those charming downtown Paris streets, it replaced them. So how does one "respect" a context? Can an architect actually improve street logic? The most straightforward response is mimicry- the building next door is a one-story Spanish Mission bungalow so I'll build the same thing, perhaps with a different entry porch or picture window. Look, ma, I'm contextual.

An understanding of contextual responsibility beyond imitation is still needed, and this is for me the real significance of Cody's , Milano, and Bison- they're smart about site. There are simple elements of imitative contextualism in these projects - the Spanish-tile shed roof at Cody's, the Berkeley trellis at Bison-but their real power is derived from an understanding of context rooted in structure and function. The question that they answer is not, What does Telegraph look like, but rather, How does it work?

These buildings are about Telegraph: anxious, loud, confrontational; in the architect's own words, "out there, in your face, dramatic." The Avenue can be hairy and these projects do not gloss this over. They have room for representation of the disjuncture and fragmentation of modern life. They are each dissimilar, even clashing assemblages which reflect the complex, sometimes contradictory "grain" of Telegraph rather than abstract it into an oversimplified, easily familiar architecture. They're not all that nice, but they ultimately reject an aesthetic of complete dissolution. The clearly ordered facade of Milano, the central wedge of the Bison, the street edge of Cody's, gives each building a tenuous unity. Such design moves might be dismissed as pretty or not-so-pretty formalism, but given the context of Telegraph Avenue, they feel clearly grounded in thoughtful analysis of what is good about the street, and more importantly, contribute to its essential appeal. Architecture alone may not make a street great, but it can clarify and reinforce what that greatness is.

The design profession has always had its factions, with each striving to predict the form of tomorrow's city; today, some of the more conservative Neo-Traditionalists, for example, assure us that a full-scale replica of Main Street circa 1923 will actually work like Main Street circa 1923, while the Deconstructivists would have us believe that resignation to a splintered, post-Derrida future is a good thing. I'm not convinced. I prefer a slightly more modest agenda. Kudos to those who can figure out even one stitch of our social fabric without pretending to be Betsy Ross. Baker, I believe, has done this. Milano, Cody's and Bison are, at heart, optimistic projects, offering an exuberant and insightful reading of Telegraph which sidesteps both mawkish nostalgia and pessimistic future shock. They provide convincing and supportive physical expression for the immaterial context of one East Bay town's Main Street, a street which knows the allure of tension at its elastic limit.

One hundred fifty years ago, after extensively touring the states, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "The American individual is a passive person, and monotonous space is what a society of passive individuals builds for itself. A bland environment assures people that nothing disturbing or demanding is happening 'out there.'"

I'd like to think he was wrong.