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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to a Bolder Future

August 18, 2010

Back to a Bolder Future

The new book Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes arrived this week, and I couldn’t wait to read it. Some of the happiest (retail) moments of my life were spent in the two San Francisco stores, especially the one at Ghirardelli Square. It was my undergraduate education in design. The shop was pure joy. It turns out that there are many local connections. Margaret Turnbull Simon, interior designer at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, was the store’s West Coast display manager. Lu Wendel Lyndon worked in the San Francisco and Beverly Hills shops and now owns that great store in Gualala, Placewares, with Maynard Lyndon, Jr. And my friend Lyn Hogan worked for Design Research here in the 1970s. Design Research was about celebrating modernism, and hopefully the book will firmly establish its legacy.

So far this blog has been about explorations that take place after my own mid-century mark. This has resulted in a number of laments and obituaries. Yesterday afternoon, to cheer myself up, I decided to take a little tourist excursion back to the site of the Design Research store in Ghirardelli. I started at Justin Herman Plaza.

The late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the plaza as an enormous piazza, like the ones you find in Italy. It used to contain a folly designed by Bill Turnbull and some wonderful curved concrete edges. Sadly, those are gone, but the great sweep of empty brick space is still there. No one would create something like that plaza now, but I am glad Halprin got away with it. It really works now as a foreground for the Ferry Building since the freeway got torn down. While I loathe the silly torcheres in the median, it hardly matters, because we got rid of that stupid freeway.

One of the great joys of my 1960/1970s childhood was running around the Vaillancourt Fountain. In recent times, the water is often turned off, but yesterday it was going full and furious. Because there is algae, the pool is green, but I thought it looked great with the sculpted concrete.

Vaillancourt Fountain at full blast

Children were dashing under the fountains and across the concrete lily pads, and I was transported back to happier times. The only problem with this sculpture (which I admit was designed to turn its back to a freeway that no longer exists) is that it needs the water to be complete. When the water is turned off, it feels like a graveyard of dinosaur bones.

The concrete lily pads

Across the street, the Ferry Building renovation is one of the great improvements to take place in San Francisco in years. A Ghirardelli Square for the new century. It was risky to focus on San Francisco tenants and food, but it appears to have paid off. The Cowgirl Creamery, with some of the best and most expensive cheeses in the Bay Area, is expanding into the space adjacent to its existing shop. I spied yellow Heath tile being installed, which reminded me to visit the Heath Marketplace, which opened this year in the Ferry Building. I was pleased to see that our friend Melody Mason was back at Heath, and we had a long chat. I have been meaning to blog about my visit to the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito (going back soon). Although the Ferry Building shop is really just a stall, it holds a lot of beautiful pieces without feeling crowded. It reminds me of Design Research in that it exhibits beautiful, durable goods that involve both craft and machines and that live out the Bauhaus ethos. As at Design Research, most of the merchandise is a bit pricey, but the design endures, and if you are careful, you can enjoy it for the rest of your life.

Heath stall at the Ferry Building
Courtesy Heath

I rode the busy F-line historic trolley down the waterfront to the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is our Disneyland (without the planning), and nobody who lives here ever goes there. I walked west towards the Cannery along some of the most hideous street retail anywhere in the city. When you get to the Cannery, the magic is long gone, which made me wonder, what made it work? Why did it die? The west side of the site, the Haslett Warehouse, once the locale of the Dickens Christmas Fair, finally found a decent use as the Argonaut Hotel. (The sterile courtyard within is appalling, however.) When I was a kid, facing the plaza was a restaurant called Ben Johnson’s, with one of William Randolph Hearst’s dining rooms reconstructed. Back then the plaza was full of jesters and street musicians, and now it’s empty, cut off from North Point Street. The Cannery tenants included Upstart Crow and Company, a great bookstore, the Blueprint Café, and a fabulous candle shop. But Ghirardelli was better because it had chocolate and Design Research! Not to mention more interesting architecture and planning.

The Cannery entrance

The empty escalator at the Cannery

Ghirardelli Square was a former factory that grew incrementally, resulting in buildings of different scales and forms, which meant outdoor spaces and walkways that invited discovery. Again, Lawrence Halprin had a hand in shaping all of this. Design Research occupied the prime space, the clock tower. William Roth, Ghirardelli Square’s developer, had convinced Ben Thompson, the Boston architect and founder of Design Research, to expand into San Francisco. It was a perfect marriage of historic design and humane modernism. There was one glazed room a few stories off the ground, which was often designed as if it were its own living room. As a kid, I used to sit in the Eames chair and fantasize that I lived in the space with views out to the bay.

Ghirardelli Square today

My childhood fantasy chair

While my siblings wanted to explore the Irish knitwear shop or the waterfront, I wanted to stay in Design Research and look at every single object and all of the tags on the furniture to learn who designed them and where they came from. As I got older, I bought the best part of my wardrobe there. Marimekko T-shirts for my skinny frame (I couldn’t afford the looser Finn Farmer shirts that I wear now.) Marimekko school bags, and change purses. Throw in some clogs and scarves, and, well, it was a look.

We love Marimekko!

Two great pieces I never bought

The treat was always the hot fudge sundae downstairs, something our whole family could agree on. Now the chocolate empire has expanded upstairs into the former Design Research space and other places in the project. The bright, open space of Design Research has been erased. A hideous diner with a garish sign has replaced one of the fancy dress shops. The bookstore now houses a cupcake bakery. Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons’s original scheme for the renovation of the chocolate factory was fairly bold. They weren’t afraid of intervening and using plazas and connecting structures where they were needed. They left all kinds of nooks and crannies that made it fun for kids but probably hard for retailers. The new owners have built some restrooms behind the bookstore and in front of the restaurant (Señor Pico’s in my era, now McCormick and Schmick’s) that really disrupts the design. But even stranger is the idea that all of those boutiques on the high floors make a good place for Fairmont Heritage Place timeshares. Who will want to sit on their terrace looking at tourists dressed inappropriately? Bring back the Sea Witch club and the Magic Pan restaurant!

The tower where D/R once lived.

Who names a building after its architect? William Roth does.

The two plaza spaces between main groupings of buildings feel right sized and were full of people despite the modest choice of retail that exists now in Ghirardelli Square. Now if only someone were brave enough to resurrect Design Research and make it all feel new and white, yellow, red, and purple all over again. I haven’t been able to find any shots of the San Francisco store so enjoy an image of the flagship store designed by Ben Thompson.

Ben Thompson's D/R store in Cambridge.
Ezra Stoller © Esto.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tony Berlant

Brazen Beauty/Less Fragility
A Few Notes on Tony Berlant at LA Louver

Waylaid, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

Despite the fact that most of my working life centers on a MacBook, I have never mastered the nuances of Photoshop or Excel. Contemporary art that appears dependent on recent technology gives me pause, and usually doubt. This was the main challenge with Tony Berlant’s recent show at the LA Louver Gallery in Venice, California (through August 28).

Upward, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

Part of the appeal of Berlant’s work has always been the way it reveals the evidence of its making: he cuts up pieces of tin printed with imagery and hammers them to wooden panels using thousands of brads. Although the pieces of metal are unmoving, the collages remind me of paper briefly anchored in place by tiny dots. I relate to the suggestion of a constant questioning: maybe this piece of paper would be better over here?

Terrace, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

His method is not burdened by scale. He satisfies my craving for the miniature (I really want one of his little house-shaped forms from the 1980s) and for the epic scene that can be looked at hundreds of times and still reveal new combinations (check out “Dancing on the Brink of the World” in the South Terminal at SFO next time you are there).

Dancing on the Brink of the World, 1987. Commission for San Francisco Airport

But this new exhibition goes in new directions.

Highlight, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

Berlant has used photographs previously in his work, but here they dominate. He adheres manipulated landscape photographs—taken at an estate near Aix-en-Provence—directly onto wood panels. He has experimented with this kind of technology before to develop the basis for covering most if not all of his surfaces in tin collage. In these new works, the modified image dominates the picture plane. I couldn’t get out of my mind the idea that they would fade over time. But so does paint. Of course, lots of modern works need constant attention, like Rauschenberg’s combines.

Break Away, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

In his earlier works, Berlant took tiny scraps of the familiar and reworked them, jigsaw-puzzle style, into a cohesive reality Collage often works in archetypes. Like therapy! Berlant is old-fashioned in that his images celebrate beauty. Here he does it with bravado, a sureness in the power of the image and its brazen color placed over the trademark snippets of metal.

Long Shot, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

The current show feels tethered to the photograph and thus to a clearer version of reality. Only some of the puzzle is finished, and digitally altered photos tell the rest of the visual story. It’s easy to feel shortchanged when you really want the artist to keep puzzling and cover the entire surface with those tiny bits of a jigsaw, countless brads marking his labor. But the more you look, you see tree trunks made out of flowers and shadows full of garden scraps. The piece entitled “Chateau” offers some sinister shadows. The four deep blue pieces were the most unusual; they conjured up a wicked nighttime scene few of us have seen. In these pieces, Berlant veers away from reworking found bits of reality into sheer beauty and moves towards creating a more ambiguous landscape that tests reality from a different vantage point. It is a stepping-off point, but it is hard to know where it will go next.

Chateau, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

Installation Photography, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery

Studio process photography, Tony Berlant, 2010. Courtesy of the LA Louver Gallery


A few days after posting this blog a brooch by Tony Berlant came up on Ebay. Thanks to Paul's skillful bidding I won! It arrived today and here are a couple of photos. My first Tony Berlant piece.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Barry Elbasani

Barry Elbasani, FAIA

Michael Severin, Donn Logan, and Barry Elbasani after winning the competition that created their firm.

It has been a little over a month since Barry Elbasani of ELS Architecture and Urban Design passed away. I still think I will walk to the top of the stairs at 2040 Addison Street and he will say “What’s going on, sport?” or “The security here is terrible.” When I worked for him from 1990 to 1997, I spoke to him most days. After I went out on my own, we spoke far less frequently, but whenever we sat down, it was as if no time had passed. The intimacy was unbroken. He was intuitive in almost everything he did, from a diagram to a presentation. If he wasn’t sure, he delegated. Sometimes he got it wrong, but often he got it right. He was willing to be bold. It takes a certain fearlessness to start your own firm when you are still in your twenties and not yet a registered architect. I love the photos of this intense-looking young fellow with a mop of curly hair.

Barry was a grouchy optimist and realistic urbanist. He grew up in Brooklyn and on the streets of New York. He was still innocent in some ways, but you could never fool him. Through sheer talent (and a little advocacy), he got into Harvard. He never forgot that he wasn’t born to go to Harvard. His one year in Cambridge changed him forever. After leaving Boston, he moved to Los Angeles to work for Victor Gruen for a year, where he learned something about showmanship. He loved driving around Los Angeles in a convertible MG with a good salary and no commitments. But he moved to Berkeley, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He told me once, “Berkeley was like Cambridge, but with better weather.” He loved looking at buildings and had a special reverence for Kahn. But he was just as interested in the spaces that buildings frame. Although he came of age in the 1960s, he was not a firebrand radical. He knew too well the result of communist tyranny in Albania. He understood that cities need economic activity to thrive. He knew that an active public sector can help revitalize a downtown.

Barry and Jerry with their mother.

One of his skills was to bring the developer and the planner together to see what was in their mutual interest. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the growth of the Southwest exurbs brought the firm work that wasn’t explicitly urban in nature. Barry’s goal was to make it as urban as possible, and he predicted that the suburb or exurb would densify and that his buildings would become the new town centers. The suburbs would catch up to his bold diagram. He took the long view.

After the communist regime in Albania fell, Barry went over to visit his long-lost relatives. When he came back, he gave us a slide show that was as powerful as any I had ever seen. He laughed about the modest accommodations. By now he was middle aged and used to comfort when traveling. Looking back, he knew it was some kind of dumb luck that had him standing in his own firm in his own building, the owner of a beautiful house overlooking the Golden Gate a few minutes away. The slides were powerful because it was personal. This was the most important lesson I learned from Barry. Everything is personal. Business is personal. If it’s not, then it’s not fun. When a client got fired from his firm, Barry always called. The moment the person was no longer influential, Barry swept into action.

Barry with his family in Albania.

Along with his family, he made the decision to sponsor several Albanian cousins in the United States. I suspect he didn’t think too long about it, he just went with his gut. Two of them spoke at his memorial. That is when I wept. He could boast about anything to do with his work, but I never heard him brag about changing the lives of these distant relatives and giving them an opportunity that they never imagined. He might have been in their place.

When his son Mark died tragically a few years ago, he was hurt more deeply than any of us knew or could see. I think some part of his optimism was dulled. When he got sick in April, he was himself until sometime in June. But as soon as the essential Barry was stilled by the cancer, I don’t think he wanted to hang around. He wanted to get to that place where he could start making calls again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Terminal Days

Terminal Days
July 30, 2010

In a few days, San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal will be closed forever. The art moderne structure by Timothy Pflueger has outlived its usefulness. In the last year, I have been taking the bus home some days, and I’ve been appalled at the condition of the building. Dark, smelly, and boarded-up, it felt doomed. Although it was never awe inspiring, it was once a strong, light-filled, utilitarian structure. For suburban kids like me, it was the portal to all the excitement that urban life had in store. The entryway was the building’s most significant architectural gesture. You walked down a ramp and emerged into a huge light-filled space that said, “Adventure is just outside.”

It really looked like this before they filled it in with the Greyhound platform.

The city's pleasures were just outside.

At rush hour the ramps were filled with organization men returning home.

My father rode the H bus from our home in the East Bay to the Transbay Terminal for close to three decades. He was not a North of Market dandy, but a South of Market organization man, toiling for the phone company. When we were very small, he worked in the art deco jewel (also by Pflueger) at 140 New Montgomery Street. When the new building at 666 Folsom was finished, I enjoyed following him on his back-alley pathways to work. 666 Folsom was the ugliest place I had ever been in, and I remember thinking, “I can never work in an office.” But I liked the cafeteria. Except for a few years in college, I rarely worked in a traditional corporate office. My dad would take his lunch hour to walk all over South of Market and had nodding acquaintances with hundreds of people, including the sculptor Benny Bufano. But the doorway to his work world South of Market was the Transbay Terminal.

This is how I remember it as a kid.

The trains stopped running in the late 50s.

It was handsome once upon a time.

It always felt like a train station, even though the Key trains stopped running around the time I was born. Squint your eyes and the diffuse light from above and the vertical metal supports almost transported you to Europe. Later, after Loma Prieta, horizontal seismic beams compromised the spatial experience. When the building was renovated a number of years ago, they inserted a balcony space for Greyhound that filled in the entryway. In the fall of 1976, I took the H bus myself, walked out to the trolley car stop, and took the M Oceanview all the way out to San Francisco State University. It was my own life now. Without that tall entry space, there was no transition, no portal, no architecture left.

photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The seismic reinforcements took away the sense of space.

It was basically a shed with parking beneath and a huge front porch.

The Key system trains ran on the lower level of the Bay Bridge.

The interurbans actually worked!

This morning in the newspaper, they announced that you could see the cocktail lounge, coffee shop, and shoeshine stand that had been covered up for years. The authorities swept the bums out, tried to clean out the urine odors, and gave us sentimental folks a last look. Nobody was asleep on the miles of wood benches. The coffee shop and bar were empty and smelled like stale cigarettes.

Cuddles, the cocktail lounge.

The coffee shop

Love those stools and the plastic flowers that look very dead.

I don't remember ever eating there.

Where the homeless slept

This was hidden behind a wall.

The metal version of the office on the east side of the lower entry.

The original version of the office on the west side of the lower entry.

The exterior of Cuddles.

Entry to the coffee shop.

Love those graphics.

Who designed this? It's perfect.