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What Makes a City Great?

My daughter attends The University of Chicago and while I love the individual buildings: the beautiful gothic revival is surrounded by 1960s brutalism, 90s neon-colored modernism and a giant, domed egg, there is no continuity – no connection between the old and the new.

As an architect, it can be a challenge to integrate your vision into existing spaces.

It must strike you as no surprise that, and then, Brasilia is my favorite architectural city.

I have recently been thinking about cities and what the notion of place is. I have always been attracted to Brasilia – despite knowing very well that the city is not a paradigm of smart and sustainable urban planning. It is too sprawled out, too utopian, with too much wasteland between buildings.

But when I went there, I was taken with the overall feel of the place; the architecture of both of the civic building, and residential buildings was far superior to most modern cities. The sense of connection between neighborhoods and landmarks.

The national congress by Oscar Niemeyer, to be frank,  just rocks. Not to mention that fabulous presidential palace (now THERE is a place for a great party).

In San Francisco, we have been building a new neighborhood called Mission Bay. I’d like the record (blog) to show that I was hopeful when it all started; after all, it was a brand new neighborhood with all new building streetscape. A real chance for San Francisco to enter the 21st century – we could hold onto all the great elements of the old and bring it into our new, modern city! Like our 1940s cable cars on brand new roads.

And I’m serious when I say I really wanted to like the Mission Bay but architecture is a profession for masochists.

While still a work in progress, I am more and more disappointed by the Mission Bay. It’s boiler-plate urban planning – a series of check-lists with no uniformity. Bike lane? Check. Mixed use of commercial ground floors? Check. Parks? Check. They’re all great features but they don’t mean anything, they don’t give the space anything, if they can’t relate. (Check?)

I am not sure what is wrong specifically. My initial reaction that everything is too big or too alike (a topic I’ve broached before). The streets are too wide and the buildings are too similar but this stylistic choice can easily be contradicted by Haussmann’s Paris. After all, the grand Haussmann boulevard like the Avenue de la Paix are hardly intimate an space and there all the buildings are all the same, same exterior material, same height, same balconies and same roof shapes. I love Paris this about Paris.

I just don’t love the Mission Bay.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Red Ree #

    Formulas, no matter how terrific, can’t substitute for actual thought! But, MB might be better than doing nothing at all, and maybe over time they’ll remediate or alter the streetscape to make it more appealing – more sidewalk features, plantings, I don’t know what. SF itself didn’t emerge whole cloth from nothing, it accreted over time. If it’s under utilized it could turn into a real sinkhole, but let’s hope that it attracts enough people to make it viable.

    October 19, 2011

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