Architecture as the Art of War

This is about San Francisco. I promise. Just give me a few paragraphs to wind myself up. We’ll get there pretty quickly.

Architecture, like a book, can be read. It has a language, and while most of us aren’t as fluent in architecture as we are in English, we’re probably more conversant then we give ourselves credit.

Architecture is the crucible through which our likes and our needs are filtered through the limitations of what we have to create livable space.

For example, Thomas Jefferson really liked the designs of ancient Greece and Rome. He thought their design embodied their humanistic philosophies. He wanted others to know that he intended to promote those kinds of values, so he adopted their designs for his home and the University he founded. However, he didn’t have marble at hand, so he used red Virginia clay bricks.


The idea is that the building conveyed the educated worldliness and sophistication of its occupants. It does that because it understands how modern viewers perceive the classical past.

Monumental architecture doesn’t always have to embrace values of the past the way Jefferson did. It can also reject those ideas.

When Walter Chrysler commissioned the Chrysler building he wanted something that would aggressively evoke a new, more modern sensibility. He was using modern materials (steel), and inventions (the mechanized elevator), to build a skyscraper that was among the tallest the world had ever seen.

It’s also considered one of the best examples of Art Deco design ever constructed. Art Deco was a new modern aesthetic that emerged after World War I. Classical European design (the kind that Jefferson loved) was too closely associated with the monarchs of Europe, who had recently orchestrated the near complete destruction of their own continent. As a result, architects looked for a way to reject the values that they felt led to folly. It was in this environment that Art Deco flourished.

Chrysler Building. New York City 2005

So how does this relate to San Francisco? Well, my fair city is in the midst of a building boom. More than 50,000 housing units are currently in the development pipeline.

I hate to use a sentence as hackneyed as “The Mission is the epicenter of the San Francisco housing crisis.” At this point, it would be less cliched to say something like “Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night,” than comment on the Mission’s relationship to the housing crisis (spoiler: it’s at the epicenter).

That being said, the Mission really is the epicenter of the housing crisis. There’s a lot of disagreement about whose fault the crisis is, and how it should be fixed. I don’t like the term “culture war.” Given that all the residents of San Francisco, new and old, pretty much want the same thing (affordable housing), it’s a little dramatic to call our current situation a “war.” It’s more like a “boondoggle born from our own ineptitude.”

That being said, Supervisor Eric Mar did compare the gentrification in the Mission to “ethnic cleansing.” Thanks for not using unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric, Eric!

As irresponsible as Supervisory Mar’s comments were, it underscores the bad blood (or the perception thereof) that exists between the long-time residents and the more recent arrivals.

The popular narrative is that young, well-heeled “techies” moved into San Francisco, the Mission in particular, with little thought or care for the people who already lived here, and pulled, as Eric Mar might put it, an “Andrew Jackson.” That perception has led to a considerable amount of ire from the local community. Supervisor Scott Wiener posted a flyer he found and his response to his facebook page:



This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an impromptu street protest against the techies in the Mission. A year or so ago, I was getting an ice cream cone at hipster-favorite Humphry-Slocombe with Dining Companion M, of RAM fame. As we walked around the block, we heard a woman YELLING things like, “GET OOOOOOOOOOUT GENTRIFIERS,” and “WE’RE TAKING BACK THE NEIGHBORHOOD.”

Her rage wasn’t abstract. She wasn’t just yelling into the ether. She specifically chosen a spot in front of 2652 Harrison St, because it looks like this:

2652 harrison st

Formerly a graffiti-covered shackZillow estimates that these brand new condos currently rent for over $4,000/month. The modern design stands out like a sore thumb, in a neighborhood that is mostly older housing stock.

This isn’t the only modern building to draw the ire of the local community. There’s also the very prominent zig-zag design of the VIDA.


There’s also the relatively less prominent development at 19th and Valencia, 2200 Mission St, 3354 20th St, and 3400 Cesar Chavez St.

These developments didn’t always draw the ire that they do now (though 3400 Cesar Chavez did). In fact, local politicians who once championed these developments now find themselves leading the charge against them.

The Plaza 16 Coalition was formed to protest this kind of development with the slogan “Deeply affordable housing for the Mission District. Not more luxury towers.”


And yet, there really hasn’t been that much development in the Mission. According to the City Economist,  this kind of development is really an outlier for the neighborhood. From 2000-’13, there were only 1,464 units built in the Mission, a little more than half were affordable. Yet during that same period, the Mission got a lot less Latino. In 2000, the Mission was 60 percent Latino, but by 2013 Latino’s comprised only 47 percent of the Mission (pg 4-5). Gentrification is happening and its mostly happening in older units that are not a lot more expensive. In fact, 97% of new, high-income San Franciscans are living in pre-existing housing (pg 24).

The truth is probably that the expensive developments have followed the money. No matter what Kevin Costner may tell you, they’re coming whether you build it or not. But, there’s a lot less protesting in front of these older buildings as they fill up with new people (unless there’s a high profile eviction story).


Because architecture matters. When long time residents see these new developments, they see places that were built for people who are already far richer than they’ll ever be. Using design that’s foreign to the neighborhood, and meant to appeal to outsiders. The way that modern-looking condos have sprung up in the Mission visibily reinforces the feeling that the existing community is under siege. They read these buildings as an indication that the built environment is evolving in a way that doesn’t include them, even though there are plenty of older buildings that are also caught up in this evolution.

Conversely, other more historically affluent neighborhoods aren’t seeing the same kind of visually jarring development.

In Cathedral Hill, the currently still un-built 1481 Post St has been redesigned to reflect the community concerns. The Sunset District has very little development, and when development does occur it’s fairly inconspicuously designed. That goes double for development in Presidio Heights.

In many cases, these developments have less flashy facades, lower heights, and contain a number of units that is more in line with the existing neighborhood fabric.

Don’t get me wrong, I, personally, like crazy ambitious modern architecture. I love watching the construction of the unbelievably expensive SOMA condo towers outside my office window. However, I understand why the lower-income communities who live in those neighborhoods dread them. Whether or not these buildings cause gentrification or just represent gentrification that’s already in progress, these designs send a clear signal about what kind of people developers are courting.

I don’t mean to suggest that architecture is the only way this dynamic manifests itself.
There have been other visible signs of gentrification that have resulted in conflict. There have been protests over the “Google buses” and fights over soccer field reservations. I’m sure I’m missing others, but rather than undermine my point, it only underscores it: Seeing is believing, and the people in the Mission see these buildings as harbingers of their own displacement. They see this kind of architecture as an act of war.


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