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California is losing its architectural soul

When I first escaped to Los Angeles, California, from New York City in the early 1970s, L.A. and all of California felt like a place of open spaces and unbounded opportunity. A place where you could get ahead but also finally sit for a minute and breathe. Fast forward to today and life in California’s major metropolitan areas feels like New York City did when I left it: increasingly claustrophobic, falling into unsustainable debt, filled with endless layers of regulations, taxes, entrepreneurial obstacles, sky-high prices for everything, and enabled by an increasing disregard for the environment. In other words, a place that's lost its soul.

As an architect, perhaps I’ve been more sensitive to all this than others, and particularly to the simultaneous degradation of our “built” and natural environment: what we build, how we build, where we build, and how we seem to be so willing to sell our soul to the Devil in the name of growth and government revenues.

As I said, just like New York City in the 1970s.

Another thing I always loved about California was its striving to balance growth with passionate environmental concerns. And the growth that did occur was filled with local influences and idiosyncratic nuance. Every multi-family residential building did not look the same in every town and city. Context, geography, and the scale of the surrounding neighborhood seemed to matter. And I remember how even in L.A., which is known for its disruptive and daring designs, neighborhoods were filled with great little Mission styled multi-family buildings with unique design features.

But now, in Sacramento’s mad rush to build as much as we can as fast as we can, and developers’ penchant for homogenizing everything—because it’s more profitable to build the same 50-year old apartment floor plans over and over again (the only thing new are the marble countertops and the appliances)--all that seems to have gone out the window. Honestly, there’s barely even a faint whisper of the kind of contextual design thinking that used to be an integral part of multi-family residential design, other than an occasional faux, stylistic reference on a building facade or detail.

Every new housing project, particularly the ubiquitous 4 to 5 story apartment building kind, looks like an even blander clone of the last one. Sure, a slick “tech” look here and a “craftsman” detail there. But it’s all the same under the hood.

Worse still, in California today, to bring up the natural environment as an objection to cookie-cutter urbanization everywhere risks being vilified as an obstructionist, “using” the California Environmental Quality Act as a “weapon,” being a NIMBY or an elitist or a racist or much, much worse.

Environmentalism in California these days is really little more than a marketing slogan to sell taxpayers on yet another bond measure to build more affordable “warehousing” or a ploy to help politicians and rapacious development interests pass off the latest green-washed development proposal, even though the fundamental construction methods and impact externalities are essentially the same as they have been for 100 years.

All of this suits most developers and their financial backers just fine.

At the other extreme, we have the “starchitects,” whose approach is much like that the Silicon Valley tech culture’s mantra of “move fast and break things.” These practitioners choose to deliberately produce what might be called “anti-contextual” designs that are proud to look like an alien space ship just landed. Perhaps, it’s a reflection of our society’s increasing addiction to speed, convenience, amped up noise and stimulation, and endless fascination with anything that can claim to be new and promising in order to hold our attention for more than a few seconds.

I’m not saying this phenomena is categorically bad. Quite the contrary. I would be the first to say that in the right hands (e.g., Frank Gehry, et al), it has produced some of the most innovative, dynamic, cutting edge architecture in the world. But, let’s just say that in less masterful hands, this fashion has produced less spectacular results.

But even this is not what bothers me most.

What bothers me, personally, is that in all this din, the middle ground of the art of architecture is being lost, and when it comes to mid-rise, multifamily development, it’s pretty much non-existent. The growing homogenization of our built environment and its genuflection to branding is producing a growing ignorance of what architecture, design, and our everyday, built environment could actually be and how much it could improve the lives of its tenants, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and I dare say, even spiritually.

Left to their own devices, most residential developers have always sought to relegate architects to the role of “exterior” decorators, subservient to the “tried and true” floor plan layouts that they made their bones building. This has always been true, but when they are handed the keys to the kingdom, as Sacramento seems intent on doing, look out below.

What is architecture?

Architecture, at its very core, done well, is a poetic endeavor. It is the embodiment of an individual intention, an effort to memorialize some aspect of our society at a given time in a given place.

There is a difference between writing a shopping list and writing a novel. There is a difference between painting a house and painting a canvas. And there is a difference between building a building and architecture. The former are simply tasks, while the latter are desperate attempts to communicate.

Good architecture is one of those things where we know it when we see it. And we somehow sense when it’s missing. It is functional and provides for our needs, but it is also exciting (or sublime) to experience and hopefully offers us the ability to live and grow in ways not previously available.

Architecture remains greatly misunderstood, even by many architects. People refer to “modern” architecture, “contemporary” architecture, and “classical” architecture.” But these are not architecture. They are just styles of architecture.

Architecture, itself, is like the energy in a wave in the ocean. The water is not the wave. The wave is the energy moving through the water. Similarly, a “style” is not architecture. It’s just the surface action.

Architecture is the energy, the force, moving within the style. Its language is timeless and universal. It expresses itself through a vocabulary of geometry, form, mass and void, dimensions, proportion, and scale tempered by gravity, physics, and materiality. It is grounded in location and ecological systems. It is experienced over time and extruded through a complex sieve of human needs and desires.

What it is not is a 150 unit, five-story, block of identical, multifamily apartments.

I sincerely hope we don’t lose sight of that.

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.