The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) center sits on Mission Street, viagra sale pharm located near the California Historical Society, prescription in the business district of San Francisco; the space has the bourgeois look of the urban chic. I walked into the SPUR center with an empty coffee cup in hand having finished the drink on my way to see the “New and Old: Architectural Fusion in the Densifying City” panel.

“Do you guys have a garbage?” I asked holding my empty cup in the air.

“We have a recycling and a compost, troche ” the attendant said. He was dressed like the participants of the event, a subdued chichi that speaks of social class and taste.

“Oh and a garbage,” I said throwing my cup into the third bin in a row of recycling, compost, and garbage cans.

“Its okay,” the attendant said with slight annoyance as he picked my cup from the garbage, “I’ll wash it out and put it into the compost.”

I laughed as I got in the elevator, thinking to myself that it was quaint that SPUR was manned by worker bees who believed in the glories of green waste management. Perhaps the honey that the bees here make will be sweeter than the unprofitable trash that is recycling, I thought as the elevator brought me to the second floor.

While free for members of SPUR and the American Institute of Architect(AIA) the event cost five dollars. Luckily this lowly prole was able to cough up the sum for the non-profit organization whose goal is to pave the way for construction.

For the first time in history more people live in urban areas than rural ones. The city is expanding, and with little space left to expand outwards to, the city is becoming denser. The question for the panelists revolved around one of economics, or theory, instead of one based on everyday life. The panel’s discussion was based on the view of managing the city. What goes unsaid is that the regulation of the city is by specialists, architects, real estate brokers, and academics in this case. The panel:

  • Tim Culvahouse, editor of ArcCA a magazine produced by the AIA California
  • Charles Chase of Architectural Resources Group. Chase was a historical preservationist
  • Anne Catrin Schultz, a scholar on Carlo Scarpa, an Italian Architect
  • Dan Gressman, the vice president of Grubb & Ellis, a major commercial real estate company
  • Charles F. Bloszies a member of the AIA and an author of a forthcoming book exploring the topic of the panel.

Chase started the conversation by raising the question of how to respect buildings during the densification process. What is necessary, according to Chase, is responding to the use and surroundings of previous buildings. “Infill is an inevitability, as growth is an inevitability, “ which is not a bad thing for Chase, but sprawl however is, it is unproductive space. “Sprawl is not the way to go, we cannot afford it,” Chase said, making note of the environmental impact of the spreading of the city.

For Schultz, dealing with the old and the new of construction is archaeology. “In the city we have traces of the city below,” she said. The process of building is a translation or a quotation of other, older aspects onto new buildings and renovations. Carlo Scarpa, whom Schultz has extensively studied, made the fusion of new and old his life’s work.

Cressman noted that each building has its own “time stamp,” a notation of the economic and historical period on which the building arises. In San Francisco, the majority of historic buildings were built in a ten year period after the earth quake in 1906. The natural disaster, which killed 376, led to the near complete rebuilding of the city.  Certain time stamps are more historical or desirable than others and hence more valuable.

Cressman noted that Real estate was so expensive during the property booms of the last couple decades that it wasn’t profitable to purchase and renovate historic buildings. Now with prices bottomed out by the recession, repairs and renovation to older structures are more cost effective. “The longer the recession, the better for these old buildings,” Cressman said, noting that the downward cycle of the economy.  Under the new green capitalist economy this type of repurposing is trendy as well. With the environmental impact of capital made more and more clear every day, inversely proportional to how polluted the world has become, capital has sought ways in which to make itself “sustainable” via environmentally friendly marketing schemes. These schemes have become popular with the population, especially amongst progressives, after all who cannot tell that something is wrong with the environment?

The argument for the renovation of historical properties currently, according to Chase, is made by the inherent properties of older buildings. Traditional structures are already “green,” not retrofitted for air conditioning the lay-out is built for natural ventilation. With technologies getting smaller and thus having less of an impact current buildings are more viable for retrofitting.

At this point an onlooker, a particularly long winded bureaucrat in waiting, brought up the question of cost. Cressman with his economic realism brought up the current prices of new construction. A new downtown high rise costs $600 per square feet with a profitable rent being $60 per foot. Current rates of rent for a class A building, however, range from $30 to $50 a foot. Unless driven by ego, new construction doesn’t make sense except for during the dot com period which lasted a day. New residential high rises in contrast cost $1000 a square foot.

Real estate moves, like the economy, in cycles. With the downward turn, we are currently in a period which is not in construction. While partially due to the economy, there is also a lack of land. Existing structures will eventually be built on and there is a labyrinthine system of regulations to enable this process. The panelists who work with the government offices joked about how difficult this process is. There are rules for selling the airspace above the building (tradable air rights) and rules about blocking existing buildings views (right to light) and all sorts of other things that can make infill a challenging legal progress. This is why the panelists were excited and promoting the idea of renovation and preservation (or the popular buzzword, repurposing) of old buildings.

For the panel participants the architectural fusion of the Contemporary Jewish museum was a perfect example of blending old with new. The museum, located in the financial district, and a few blocks from the Yerba Buena arts district along with the Museum of Modern Art was formerly the Jesse Powers PG&E substation. The building, originally designed in 1907 by Willis Polks, was reinvented by star architect Daniel Libeskind. The brick façade of the building matches the classic Roman Catholic Church next door while the jutting cube that sticks out of the museums roof and west side corresponds to the ideology of contemporary building, which is to say that it is ugly. The design is juxtaposed from most angles by the skyscrapers adjacent to it. The museum is incongruent with the surrounding architecture. The panelists lauded the piece as a sincere and respectful fusion of old and new.

There were two last comments of note, Culver stated that the way current investments are structured within cities creates dramatic change in buildings. Instead of just one or two floors added to a building, a tower is put on top. Cressman’s closed with the statement;  “As a pedestrian your view is at street-level and only the changes at street level impact your perception of the neighborhood Pedestrians rarely concern themselves what is happening above the street.” In a way his comment speaks to the way in which the city is constructed, not for the mensch walking about, but for those above.

After the event I went to the men’s room. The urinal demanded my attention. As my proletariat piss filled the toilet the automation flushed the water pot. I stopped my urine as the combination of pee and water spilled out onto the floor and into the hall. I guess the architects of the future hadn’t planned on plumbing.