I went to a talk tonight by architect Donald MacDonald. The talk was called “Democratic Architecture: Practical Solutions to Housing Crises” but as I’ll get to in a bit, I think the title was pretty bad.
MacDonald is an old man with ( I assume) an illustrious past — his firm designed the new span of the Bay Bridge, at least. And in a few weeks he has the grand opening of a bridge in Portland.
His one good, well thought out big idea is 3D zoning. Right now in most places zoning covers the lot– but shouldn’t ground floor spaces have different rules than 4th story? I wish he had spent more time on that.
This talk was laid out (he claimed) starting from lowest-income housing and moving upwards. Really this meant 2 minutes of a box he designed for homeless people, three camper/RV style homes he designed, and then a bunch about his so-called “suburban villages” and “urban villages”. Ultimately I think he’s an architect of small things rather than big ideas. And his small thoughts are fascinating. In particular he pays a lot of attention to lines of sight, though he never summarized it in quite that way. But he talked about living spaces on top floors so that you see the good part of the tree rather than the trunk. And in the villages he’s designed, he angles nearby houses in such a way that you can see through gaps between other houses into the distance instead of just looking at the houses. And in the mixed residential-commercial buildings, 2-3 stories with the commercial space on the ground floor, he talked quite a bit about how he put the planters in such a way as to provide privacy on the deck.
The trouble came when it came to delivering on the title of his talk. “Democratic Architecture” sounds like a big idea. “Practical Solutions” was more his strength, but not to “Housing Crises”. Essentially his vision of housing is much the same in cities and in suburbs — small, self-contained, mixed-use “villages” about one city block square. A good example is this development in Oakland though he also showed a number of others. He talked quite a lot about affordability but seemed to think that most of the reason housing is so expensive in San Francisco is because of needlessly expensive building practices, rather than the price of land itself. This is why he thinks that the building height cap in San Francisco is no big deal. To support this, he mentioned a friend of his in London who was able to find a cheap apartment after looking at 100 others, seemed to me more like a counterexample. And he talked about some admittedly cool work he did a few decades ago in San Francisco where he was actually able to find decent lots that were undesirable by conventional standards (around Duboce Triangle).
And regarding these villages that he so lovingly described: he boasted that he was able to fit about 30 units per acre which he claimed was around the same as San Francisco overall. Which left me slightly underwhelmed when it came to solving any housing crisis.
As for Democratic Architecture, he made a few vague statements about general principles but his examples seemed to me to suggest that it means “give people what they already want”. (The example I remember best related to open space in a housing development. He read some report suggesting that people like to have their own yard instead of a common green space, so now that’s his MO.) This is a fine philosophy and in fact is probably a necessary bromide in the world of celebrity architects. But I think “Democratic Architecture” is a bit high-falutin for the level of thought he has actually given this idea. He also had a lot of optimism surrounding the combination “give people what I think they want” and “do what you need to do to get things built” and “we’ll end up with outcomes that I think are
good.” For example he tends to supply less parking than average in San Francisco and says “people will figure it out” by which he means “they’ll bike or take public transit” but in many cases probably means “compete for street parking.”
Anyway, interesting issues. I asked a question about designing for homebuyers vs architects — since most of his talk was about homebuying (e.g. his units are designed to be expandable as you get more income) which he completely dodged. He also talked almost not at all about household size, which is important given that much of what he designs is small by conventional standards (14×17 including a lo
ft bed, in one case). He mentioned once that “asian” families “like” to have a lot of people in one space.
Finally, a small thing. He mentioned that it’s actually easier to build tall things on the hills of SF rather than the low-lying areas
because that’s where the bedrock is! And the Financial District is basically mud.