Recently in San Francisco a house flipper illegally demolished a significant 1936 home by the famous Richard Neutra. Here is some coverage.
Perhaps he expected to be treated like the last lawbreaker, who had demolished a Willis Polk house in the same city and was fined a record $400,000. In that case the flipper paid the fine and quickly made 7 or 8 million on the flip. Price of doing business.
Except our Neutra Exterminator didn’t get a fine – he was told he had to rebuild the house in the same materials just as it was, and then put up a plaque explaining the history of the building and making sure everyone understands that they are looking at a replica.
I’m sure we can find a “property rights” type who would cry for this poor flipper,. but not me. The value of this harsh but entirely equitable judgement is that it discourages the unfortunate tendency of some to “ask forgiveness” rather than ask permission. This approach undercuts the law and rewards lawbreakers. Making someone FIX their lawbreaking actually discourages further lawbreaking.
(By the way, you can always tell a flipper because they SAY that they are going to live in the house with their family. Dead giveaway.)
We have some of this “backwards planning” here in San Antonio. First, we have a structural problem in Planning. Public hearings on planning issues are only held AFTER the applicant has dealt with the city planners and there is a big sign that clearly states that there can be no changes at that point. So public input is rendered worthless.
We have the “ask forgiveness” problem in epidemic proportions. Applicants come before a citizen board with limited experience, plead that they have already invested in their non-permitted scheme, and the board feels sorry for them and grants the permit retroactively. Awful precedent, and everyone is taking it up. It happens at Board of Adjustment all the time – “I didn’t know I needed a permit. Sorry. Can I keep it?”
This also happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which has several new members and it still getting used to its processes and purview.
I guess, technically, we are the Wild West, but planning anarchy is no way to welcome tens of thousands of new residents a year. With a series of political and administrative shifts in our city (and an increase in borrowing costs) it is high time we fixed our backwards planning.
I am on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Planning and Construction at the University of Texas at San Antonio and we had a retreat yesterday. Heavy in the discussion was the fact that many architecture students do not get “real world” training or experience. They emerge especially underschooled in zoning and codes and the permitting process.
Let’s not forget plumbing.
I kinda don’t get it because I used to cover these issues extensively in my Master of Science in Historic Preservation classes. I guess there is an historical tendency for architecture curriculum to focus on designing new buildings.
I want my name in lights! And my tower the tallest!
My friend Stuart Cohen used to introduce my presentation to his class at UIC by saying “75% of all the architectural work you will ever do is on existing buildings.” Add to this the tendency of architectural accreditation to load on course requirements and you have little leeway to help students navigate the actual path of constructing or reconstructing buildings.
Hence the proliferation of “C” level work.
The discussion turned on how both architecture professors and students use “creativity” as the reason they do not study rehabilitation and process. This is a hoary word and a hoarier concept. The implication is that creativity is GREATER or MORE when there are no constraints.
See how much MORE you can do with a blank slate? Like, it must be at least 68% MORE!
The idea is that a blank slate allows more creativity. But it is wrong. Demonstrably wrong. The “Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis” was proved years ago. Look here.
This was designed in an extremely constrained environment. By Frank Lloyd Wright, but still.
In fact, it is LAZIER to start from scratch. Nothing to figure out, just let your mind wander, let your creative juices flow, and you will get…..something like the Libeskind building above where the creative juices just really, really flowed, like flowed. And the mind wandered. And we who confront the building wander as well.
Unless it looks like it is going to crush us, then we walk purposefully away.
In any kind of education there is always a tension between information and practices that must be learned and the mechanism of learning. One does not simply decant information into a vessel. The best kinds of education create a permanent pathway for learning, so that new challenges that were never considered before can be met, not by specific example, but by processes developed and exercised. Not so much gray matter memory as muscle memory.
Baby I’ve been there before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.
My friend Bruce Sheridan has written extensively on how science and art are both underpinned by the same human capacities, and that education must reintegrate art and science. How our brains and even our emotions work reinforces this concept. Creativity does not arise magically from an absence, but robustly from a muscled presence.
So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.
This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old. It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style. This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.
After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.
Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.
What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France. Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.
Huth House, Castroville, 1846.
But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture. If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum. In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV. This is what it looked like:
Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure. All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.
Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.
This year marked both my first rodeo and my first Fiesta, which is San Antonio’s 126-year old celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. The greatest party during the 10-day Fiesta is the San Antonio Conservation Society’s A Night In Old San Antonio®, which runs four consecutive nights.