Welcoming New ‘Neighborhood Characters’

Charismatic contemporary architecture could help people get excited about the creative possibilities that come with solving the housing crisis.

On Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, physically and spiritually sandwiched between Rasputin and Amoeba, a new Cal dormitory is turning heads. “Hideous,” “unique,” “terrible,” “funky,” and “in-your-face” are a few of the adjectives passersby used to describe the craggy, turreted, stylistic mishmash of a building. One word no one used: boring.

The Enclave Apartments is one of the recent housing developments in the Bay Area challenging the widely held notion that “new apartment buildings all look the same,” as a 2019 Bloomberg headline proclaimed. It’s nothing like the boxy, glassy, and gray buildings that for many locals have come to symbolize a certain kind of gentrification; the regional culture’s flattening into something resembling an Apple product. The sharp corners, hard materials, and minimalist color palette of much of the neo-modernist architecture springing up today can feel especially jarring in older, small-scale residential neighborhoods, where established denizens are quick to oppose new construction on the grounds that it detracts from “neighborhood character.”

The problem is the Bay Area badly needs housing — especially in these older neighborhoods close to public transportation, jobs, shopping areas, schools and hospitals, and far from wildfire zones. The character of these neighborhoods will inevitably have to change to accommodate anywhere close to the 441,000 new homes the state says the Bay Area must build by 2030.

Architects can’t do much when it comes to the many euphemistic meanings bound up in the term “neighborhood character” — from the exclusion of more diverse newcomers, to the preservation of on-street parking. But they can prove to the public that charismatic regional architecture need not be a thing of the past. 

New neighborhood characters like the Enclave draw their personalities from the same sources as many of the Bay Area’s beloved old buildings: from history, fantasy, and local ecology and cultures. The results might not always please highbrow critics, but they could help neighbors get excited about the creative possibilities that come with solving the housing crisis.

The Enclave’s three-story faux-stone façade was modeled after rocks from the Sierras. (Photo: John Sutton)

Fantasy Architecture 

The story behind the design of the 254-bed Enclave Apartments, which opened in the fall of 2020, is long and convoluted. It started nearly two decades ago, when Ken Sarachan, founder of Rasputin Records in Downtown Berkeley and something of a neighborhood character himself, commissioned local architect Kirk Peterson to draw up plans for a building a wizard could have built on a long-vacant lot next to his record store. Peterson, known for his historicist, Tuscan-style mid rises that have proliferated throughout Berkeley in recent years, made some initial drawings, but ultimately Sarachan sold the lot to another developer that brought on LCA Architects to finish the job. Amidst all this shuffling, Sarachan remained the “author” of the project, says David Bogstad, principal at LCA. “He would go on trips to the Sierras and bring me rocks that he wanted matched.”

That figures. Despite its diverse historical influences — Moorish, Tudor, Spanish, and some Petersonian Tuscan flourishes — the Enclave is dominated at street level by a three-story faux-stone cliff. Inlaid mosaics pop out from the rocks like paleolithic cave drawings, and up above, a 500-pound lantern hangs from an arch on the sixth floor. The effect is more Disney than Alhambra (Spain, not California), with its self-conscious striving for the whimsical. And in that sense, it’s actually very legible to architecture fans in the Golden State. 

Just a mile north of the Enclave, a block up from Berkeley’s campus, is a collection of storybook cottages known as Normandy or Thornburg Village, depending whom you ask. Initially constructed in 1927 and expanded over the years, the cottage cluster borrows from Scandinavian, Mission, Alsacian, and other historic architectural traditions. The buildings are unique, but not exceptional: the Berkeley Hills are full of eclectic houses from the early decades of the 20th century that would be right at home in a Brothers Grimm tale. 

Normandy Village in Berkeleley is a quintessential example of the storybook style, popular throughout California in the 1920s. (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

These Hansel and Gretel houses can also be found in San Francisco’s Forest Hill and Ashbury Heights, in Belvedere and Hillsborough, and farther afield in Carmel and Hollywood. “Everything was to be scaled to the minuscule,” architecture critic David Gebhard wrote of the storybook style in Bay Area Houses, “with a sense that we as adults are like Alice in Wonderland, walking around in a world of which we are not a part.”

The Enclave applies these principals on a maximalist scale, says Mitchell Schwarzer, an architectural historian at California College of the Arts. It’s part of a fantasy tradition in architecture that can be traced back to Antoni Gaudi, of Sagrada Familia fame, and Friedrich Hundertwasser, an eccentric Austrian architect who celebrated bold colors and rejected straight lines. In California, this tradition has tended to be more vernacular, not only appearing in residential architecture, but also in theme parks, like Disneyland and Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, or country getaways like the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.

The Enclave seems particularly suited to its location on Telegraph Ave., second only to Haight Street as California’s grooviest commercial corridor. Its audience is college students and tourists, not architectural award committees. Peterson, the original architect on the project, disavowed the final result in Berkeleyside, calling it “god-awful.” For his part, Bogstad thinks context is everything. “Architects get so uptight,” he says. “It’s a dorm. College is a fun time of life. Let’s have some fun.”

1645 Pacific in Polk Gulch channels Art Nouveau architecture so it “doesn’t stand out as an intruder,” says David Israel, an architect who worked on the building. (Photo: Doug Dun)

Ornamental Revival 

Of course, what works in downtown Berkeley may not be appropriate everywhere else. Here, in San Francisco’s Polk Gulch, another new neighborhood character made a quieter entrance in 2014. BAR Architects-designed 1645 Pacific emulates Art Nouveau architecture, with its soft, flowing façade, intricate ironwork and prominent stucco ornaments. A bouquet of what appear to be aloe plants sprout from the condo building’s front door, and higher up, a larger-than-life female figure, shrouded in plants, watches over the street. 

“It’s been very well received because it’s so unique,” says David Israel of BAR Architects. “It was something a neighbor could point to and say, ‘We’re next to that funny building.’” It’s true, there aren’t very many Art Nouveau-style apartments in San Francisco. But the building’s generous use of ornament, like the gingerbread icing on so many Victorian and Edwardian houses or the decorative medallions gracing so many art deco and Spanish style buildings, ensures it “doesn’t stand out as an intruder,” Israel says.

The revival of ornament in buildings like 1645 Pacific feels ironic. Ever since Adolph Loos gave his lecture on “Ornament and Crime” in 1910, modern architecture, which lives on in the neo-modernism that emerged in the 1990s, has sought to strip away fanciful details. Busy fronts are thought to detract from the expression of forms and materials; decorations are for stuffy old aristocrats and the garish nouveaux riches. Yet today in the Bay Area, minimalist, unornamented new buildings are often perceived as cold and uncreative; the style of our new haute-bourgeoisie, the tech oligarchy.

The detailed ornaments (a parent and child, perhaps?) on 1645 Pacific were created by Scientific Art Studio, the firm behind the oversized baseball mitt at the Giants’ ballpark. (Photo: Doug Dun)

“I would say part of the reaction against modernism today comes from the same anti-bourgeouis views” that produced modernism in the first place, says Alfred Twu, a Berkeley-based artist, architect, and political activist who advocates for a more playful orientation for architecture. 

Even if its condos are on the pricey side, the exterior ornaments on 1645 are for everybody. They were designed by Ron Holthuysen of Scientific Art Studio, the firm behind such crowd-pleasers as the oversized baseball mitt at Oracle Park, and the sculpture learning plaza at the SF Zoo, which includes life-sized, tactile models of dozens of animals, including a hammerhead shark and a goliath frog.

If they were in an art gallery, these sculptures, or the ornaments on 1645 Pacific, would come off as pretty silly. But maybe the problem is that too many architects are trying to fit into the museum — no touching please — instead of the playground. 

“Architecture as a field takes itself too seriously,” Twu says. “When you think about the other design-related fields, whether it’s music or movies or fashion, not one of them takes themselves even half as seriously as architecture does.”

The hieroglyphs on the side of Wardenclyffe in North Oakland tell the story of the stages of industrialization. (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

Burning Man Architecture

Contemporary architects need not look to past styles — or fairy tales — for ornamental inspiration, however. The Bay Area’s many contemporary artistic movements can serve as fodder for architecture. Wardenclyffe, a condo building in North Oakland completed in 2019, is technically an homage to Nikola Tesla, but the structure screams Burning Man. Its steampunk façade is a tangle of copper pipes, gears, grates, and clocks. The side walls are imprinted with hieroglyphs telling “the story of the stages of industrialization,” says Dwight Linden, its developer.

Linden sought out local artists to contribute to the Wardenclyffe at the American Steel Studios in West Oakland, a workspace popular with the Burner community. By featuring the work of these artists, the building reflects their scene. Neighbors were involved, too: The murals on its north side were painted by the Firehouse Art Collective next-door, led by Tom Franco, brother of actors James and Dave. With so many artists working on one building, the developers couldn’t be control freaks. Linden is still not sure whether the metal sculptures on the roof depict falcons or dragons. “Those were a surprise to us,” he said.

Wardenclyffe’s façade is a tangle of functional and decorative metalwork. (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

To Schwarzer, Wardenclyffe speaks to our contemporary fantasies, which now take place on screen, instead of in storybooks. “If you look at our fascination today with video games and fantasy television, there’s an audience in architecture for that kind of wacky stuff.”

Wacky — sort of like the Bay Area’s treasured Victorians, which critic Ernest Peixotto in 1893 called “nightmares of an architect’s brain.” In any good story, characters’ identities shift over time. The Victorians went from nightmares to Painted Ladies. What will the next century hold for today’s neighborhood characters, or the many people who will call them home?

We won’t know unless we welcome them in.

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