Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay
Reviewed by Justin Parscher
In their continual search for respect, recognition, and equal pay, landscape architects find themselves in a quandary. On one hand, they understand that credit attaches itself to authors, masters with distinct visions and styles, and are forever writing letters to the editor to assert that the city didn’t do it—the landscape architect did. They celebrate acting as project leads, not only because it validates their way of working, but because the project lead can safely be given final credit. However, having toiled so long in subsidiary roles, landscape architects are also mindful of the networks of expertise that actually form ambitious designs, particularly in the public realm. A chain of public officials, architects, structural and civil engineers, ecologists, lighting designers, and community members all contribute to the shape of the place, which is naturally also conditioned by social and environmental realities on the ground.
The urban historian Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco is, among its many other virtues, a vital text for helping landscape architects think through this dilemma. Isenberg’s book focuses on a loose web of individuals working in design, development, and preservation in the Bay Area from the 1940s through the 1970s, including licensed architects and active volunteers. Using a series of development projects as starting points, she draws back the camera on each story to examine in depth the careers of the people involved, and how each one participated and intersected in larger debates. Isenberg deemphasizes formal decisions in order to stress the life of designs beyond the studio, as they proceed through a variety of hands and past a variety of viewpoints. Her determination to pursue design stories beyond their familiar boundaries and into the larger world shares some of the virtues of the work of Bruno Latour; what the book lacks in Latour’s woolly provocations, it more than gains in its expert use of the historian’s craft. The product of more than 10 years of work, Designing San Francisco pieces together its composite picture from voluminous material gathered from personal archives, interviews, and the local press.
The relationship between private lives and public debate in her source material, in fact, lies at the core of the book. Isenberg works to unite debates played out in public with the interpersonal negotiations and private correspondence of consultants, business partners, and team members. As such, Designing San Francisco’s account is especially valuable for the ways it emphasizes the importance of rhetoric in forming the public life of landscape design. She examines the circle of normally invisible professionals who work to smooth the path of the design as it inches toward reality, making allies of the press and intriguing the public. Isenberg places in the forefront the work of the publicist Marion Conrad and the model makers Virginia Green and Leila Johnston in effectively selling developments to elected officials and the public. Indeed, to read Isenberg’s account of Conrad’s tireless work to “place” Sea Ranch in the newspapers and magazines of the day is to question our standard account of the significance of the project. How much of our story of the impact and meaning of this place essentially derives directly from her successful publicity effort?
It will not escape notice that many of these elided figures are women, and Isenberg vividly recounts how figures from the developer and property manager Caree Rose to the garden writer Maggie Baylis carved professional niches in the face of overt discrimination. Along with their predecessor Anne Luckhart, Green and Johnston, coming from master’s programs in sculpture, effectively created the model-making industry of the time, persuading local architects to outsource high-quality presentation work. News coverage of their thriving business balanced condescension against wonderment at their handiwork, including a machine they patented for automatically translating drawn contours into carved model landforms. What the coverage did not make clear was the depth of their commitment—involving on at least one occasion getting a soil sample from a far-off site to get the ground color exactly right—or their influence on final design decisions. Their adjustable analytical models were credited as heavily shaping Thomas Church’s work at Stanford University. When commissioning their home from the architects Claude Stoller and Robert Marquis, with landscape architecture by Robert Royston, Green and Johnston—partners both inside and outside the office—entered into an acclaimed creative partnership with the rest of the design team. Together, they created a unique open plan intended for a child-free lifestyle, premised on entertaining and a minimum of housework. But Green and Johnston’s work, vividly remembered and regarded by their contemporaries, would soon become invisible as a contribution to the era’s design culture. Despite the element of interdisciplinarity in the era’s design team, then as now the magic circle of the canon had to be drawn somewhere. Designing San Francisco repeatedly points to where, when, and why these lines were drawn.
Consider the career of Bobbie Stauffacher (also known professionally as Barbara Stauffacher Solomon). Her “supergraphics,” bold and clear graphic designs applied to architectural space, enjoyed a brief and intense vogue throughout the 1960s. Her work in signage, wayfinding, and decoration throughout San Francisco and at Sea Ranch garnered her awards and acclaim. Trained in Switzerland, she was one of the first people in the United States to use and popularize the Helvetica typeface. Her accomplishments did not garner her proportional pay, and as time went on she also saw her share of credit diminished and her work erased through insensitive maintenance. Pivoting her career toward architecture and landscape in the 1980s, she created a series of intriguing books hybridizing hand rendering, collage, and the Swiss grid. Good Mourning California, a polemical work of geography published four years before James Corner’s often similar Taking Measures Across the American Landscape, is particularly worthy of rediscovery.
Landscape architects will take particular note of Designing San Francisco’s treatment of the career of Lawrence Halprin, as Isenberg’s book joins the work of Alison Hirsch, Associate ASLA, as part of a vital wave of scholarship on Halprin and his firm. While acknowledging the work of the Halprin firm in popularizing public process and advancing the careers of women in landscape architecture, these recent histories draw out the problematics of the man and the firm. One of the most fascinating moments in Isenberg’s account comes as Halprin faces off in the press against the sculptor Ruth Asawa. Asawa, who made her reputation with intricate abstract structures of woven wire, had recently switched to a figurative style that more forcefully foregrounded the representation of women. Working in the courtyard of the recently reconstructed Ghirardelli Square, Asawa installed the centerpiece fountain sculpture, Andrea, depicting a mermaid and her children. A livid Halprin circulated a long condemnation of the sculpture, to him a piece of kitsch far out of keeping with the new identity of the complex. The symbolism of his preferred solution—a modernist pillar of some kind—did not go unnoticed to commentators of the time, with several critics ridiculing Halprin’s “15’ shaft.” This story, as well as the blow-by-blow account of the battles over the design of the defeated San Francisco International Market Center, reminds us that Halprin, however much he came to resemble a swashbuckling hippie, was deeply rooted in both the dominant design discourse and the dominant development community of the day. In combination with the story of Stauffacher, Asawa’s career hints at the ways in which the culture and aesthetics of modernist design came to be insufficient for the women who excelled in it most.
Isenberg is a clear and engaging writer who is both transparent and persuasive in presenting her own angle on the story. The actual text of the book never really matches up with what reads as a sweepingly definitive book title; her Designing is an ongoing, piecemeal project, not a single narrative of a single effort. The network of narrative demands some patience in following threads, and while the avoidance of first-this-then-that chronology frees her to follow themes, it also makes for a certain amount of backtracking. Those approaching from an interest in landscape might flag during some of the more exacting discussions of real estate, and it is especially disappointing when the tantalizing story of an unpublished manuscript by LAM’s former editor Grady Clay never quite lives up to Isenberg’s buildup to it. Studying competitions held for redevelopment of public land, Clay points out that transparency, effective visualization, and a disinclination to wholly cede control to the developer form a recipe for success, a series of common sense conclusions that the world does not seem to have lost much in leaving undiscovered. Likewise, it seems to speak more to the passions of the time than any intrinsic merit that the now-forgotten The Ultimate Highrise: San Francisco’s Mad Rush Toward the Sky was once hailed as the most “important book on the urban question since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” In general, for readers less familiar with the Bay Area, more cartography would be helpful in setting the scene; the many locales Isenberg mentions are depicted early on in a pair of maps, but there is scant analytical material to help readers understand overall changes in fabric or demographics.
Most important, while it seems that a strong argument could be made that the activity she examines has formed the current image and development climate of San Francisco, she never quite makes it. Isenberg succeeds in erasing the caricature of the preservationists of the time as blinkered NIMBYs, and demonstrates how they advanced their own vision of redevelopment to compete with the corporate interests looking to “Manhattanize” the city. But I left the book wanting more connections drawn between this initial grassroots push to preserve the city’s face, and the current crisis of a place so enamored with its historic fabric that it is unwilling to densify or create affordable housing. Isenberg must, of course, draw a boundary somewhere around the narrative, and it is to her credit that the reader wants to continue to follow it beyond. And this is especially true of Thomas C. Fleming’s analysis of urban renewal, a story briefly touched upon in the book. The editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco’s largest African American newspaper, Fleming from the start saw urban renewal as a land grab and a dereliction of the civic duty to build affordable housing. In an era of belated attention in press and academia to persistent inequalities in housing and environmental policy, it seems to be time for a deeper dive into contemporaneous black journalism’s perspective on the formative policy of the 1960s.
Taken as a whole, Designing San Francisco is a vital critique of the standard narrative of design authorship. The shorthand attribution of projects like Ghirardelli Square to Halprin may render landscape architecture as a profession more visible and prominent, but ignores a wealth of social realities, from the internal workings of the firm that bore his name to the fact that Caree and Stuart Rose had already pioneered retail sited in immersive environments of reused historic fabric. The germ of the project begins with the activism of Jean and Karl Kortum, who since the late 1940s had been pitching civic leaders to preserve the character of the waterfront by transforming it into a combination heritage district and modern retail center. And the success of the project hangs with the proprietors of its record stores, radio stations, and restaurants, as marketed by Stauffacher and maintained by the Roses. In this way, the book forces us to attend to how in many cases landscape architects have sought to ennoble our profession through importing wholesale the narrative of the master builder, the white man standing alone. Challenging ourselves to find ways to attribute credit more accurately and widely is crucial both because it places value on who actually does the work and makes the impact, and because it allows us to see design itself as an ecology of collaboration—happy or not. Most designs may indeed be seen to be as far-reaching, complex, and unconscious as the design of San Francisco.
Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, by Alison Isenberg; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017; 436 pages, $37.50.