May 2010

The Trouble with Empathy

Go forth with gusto and big ideas — design your clients the house of their dreams to make up for the pain and work of getting it built. This idealistic tenure is what defines us — “si se puede” — but it often gets us into trouble.

Case in point – about four years ago, we designed a simple house-addition and an elaborate garden/outdoor room for a family in Irvine, CA.  But before we were even able to get started on our gorgeous make-over, the existing house began to crack-up due to poor soil conditions.  Our lovely project was put on hold while the engineers and the lawyers figured out what went wrong with this 1962 Irvine Company tract home’s slab on grade foundation.

Here we are years later and the dust (and soil) has settled and it is time to move on.  There was a settlement, the City took some blame, but provided only about 1/2 of the cash required to re-build.

And in comes empathy. They deserve a new house after what they’ve been through, right? Not just any house, but a dream house (HGTV is partially to blame).

I think architects play a critical role in imagining the future, in envisioning the world in new ways, in enriching the lived experience of everyday life through design. But when does our “visioning” get in the way of the realities of budget. All the time. In this case we didn’t back down; there was too much riding on the promise of a new life and it wasn’t going to get there on the cheap.

The final budget has yet to come in — we predict it will be a bit over — and construction starts in late July 2010. We hope to report back in nine months that the trouble with empathy was worth it.

May 2010

Learning to Love ‘Temporary’

San Francisco is impeccable. It is timeless. It is storied and rich, and with very little aftertaste. It is easy on the eyes. But it often feels like when you find something here that is exciting, edgy, different, you don’t dare hold on too tight – or like a watermelon seed it may shoot mysteriously from your grasp, blurred with speed as it heads to the periphery. Is that the nature of truly interesting things, destined to be displaced by something more lasting, less controversial?

In the Pavement to Parks Program our fearless Planning Department has found one tool to introduce rather than eject watermelon seeds of coolness. Theses parks are experimental, they are challenging on many levels, and they are refreshingly ‘temporary’ in a city that sometimes appears to be ossifying under the weight of its own prestige. Very simply the plan is to take over weird and busy areas previously dominated by automobiles and ask “how little does it take to make people want to be here”?

Boor Bridges recently had the pleasure to add our riff to the temporary space that Public Architecture began a couple years ago in reworking the intersection of Castro, 17th, & Market. We led a design collaboration with Flora Grubb to re-plantify the intersection. We replaced the cardboard planters at the end of their life with more massive concrete shapes holding each of three corners. They rise up towards the traffic and slope down to seating height at the courtyard. They make the plants look taller, the cars seem smaller, and the people a little safer. Still to come are 2 massive asymmetric gates made of recycled steel from the Port. We designed these heroic rusty giants with the sculptor Paul Cesewski in mind. He is building them now to hold grand potted trees at the edge of Castro. They will swing out of the way in case of an emergency or street festival.

Love it, hate it, don’t care? Relax it’s ‘temporary’.