Retreat to the Heat

Having spent more than three years in the bay area, I used to think that the design community in San Francisco was small. No, the architecture community here is tiny. I’d constantly run into colleagues on the street and hear the same names repeated in conversation. But after a weekend away in the woods with a cabin full of architects, I’m starting to think that the word “small” isn’t quite apt to describe this place…

One hot August weekend, I found myself among a closely quartered troop of designers. We were all from small firms based in San Francisco (with one exception from Berkeley) and were invited to escape to a remote site in the Plumas National Forest, right outside of Oroville, California – hence, “hot” August weekend. Yup, that’s old gold country, folks! What brought us here together was the first annual Cabin Fever Design Competition hosted by Barker O’Donoghue. Our goal over the weekend was to visit the site, gather inspiration, and design – you guessed it – a super cool off-the-grid cabin, to put it simply. The best part is that the winning design will be built over the winter. Pretty neat stuff, if you ask me.

Undoubtedly, there were a lot of great aspects to the charette (which I could discuss at length in another post), but what struck me the most from that experience wasn’t how we bonded over incessant architectural banter or fiercely fought tooth and nail over the competition. Beyond the expected outcomes of jamming a truckload of designers in a tight shared space, I took comfort in the camaraderie among each individual and the overall ease of the entire weekend. I had anticipated a bit of tension and weirdness from the nature of the competition and close quarters, but as it turned out, none of it existed. Even despite being among “the competition”, we all agreed that the atmosphere was one of shared warmth and mutual respect.

During our last dinner, somebody had commented on how it was rare for us to gather and get to know each other in such a relaxed and casual manner. After all, there are not very many opportunities like this one. Not surprisingly, we were all connected by very small degrees of separation and everyone knew of each other, yet (at the risk of sounding obvious) none of us really knew the next person. Still, this quickly gave way to a familiar intimacy that is, in my opinion, special to the design community of San Francisco. Maybe it’s something about seeing each other rough and ready – bedhead, pajamas, and all – but I can easily say for myself that it was a pleasure to spend an entire weekend with such good company. I can’t say if this would be true if we were from anywhere else.

In our day to day, I think it’s easy to take our community for granted. Sometimes it takes a random experience like this one to help us remember just how lucky we are to be in this place we call home. Yes, our summers are infamously cold and we always gripe about the wind and fog, but there’s a reason we chose to live and work here. For me, it’s simple and this cabin weekend best illustrates just why. It definitely confirmed my obvious it’s-a-small-world observation, but now, I’d like to think the word “intimate” suits the architecture community of San Francisco far better than just “small”.