The photographs I made for this website were taken during the second California Gold Rush. The first was in 1849 when thousands sailed through the Golden Gate into the San Francisco Bay in hopes of striking it rich in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. The majority found little gold, but many made their fortunes outfitting and supplying the miners. San Francisco became a great metropolis during the following few decades, and despite its near destruction in the earthquake of 1906, the Bay Area remains an urban and natural marvel.
The stirrings of the second Gold Rush began in the South Bay in a no-place place called Silicon Valley. The original success of the Valley was based on computer hardware and software. It happened in small cities like Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Palo Alto. And it fueled the amazing growth of San Jose, now a city of almost a million with more people than San Francisco. Companies emerged from behind the garage doors of suburban houses, incubated within strip mall storefronts, and eventually bloomed in anonymous glass office complexes along the freeways.
But it was the explosion of the Internet that created the big rush. No longer was the computer business solely the territory of geeks and techies, it was open to anyone with a dream of getting rich quick. Fortunes have been made--real and on paper--by the new dot-commers. And like the Gold Rush of '49, wealth came to the builders of the infrastructure and suppliers of the industry: the web designers, content providers, and a host of others who service the new media.
South of Market, a former industrial/shipping area adjacent to downtown San Francisco, is the heart of the new media landscape of the Bay Area. It is a disparate collection of building types that range from post-earthquake brick factories to all sorts of improvised sheds and garages. The Clocktower is an example of the former, a substantial landmark directly on the approaches to the Bay Bridge. The opening photograph of the tower was taken from the window of a nearby building. Seeking a high vantage point, I climbed the stairs to an upper floor, opened an unmarked door, and was greeted by a dozen pair of eyes peering above computer monitors.
Around the corner is South Park, a small lozenge shaped park ringed by cafes and restaurants. It's a favorite outdoor lunch spot when the weather is good. The crowd is young and hip, and the conversation is thick with the buzz words of the Internet. Only a few blocks away is the Knox Hotel, a model SRO, in a street full of ramshackle hotels and flophouses. I photographed the Knox from across the street with an empty building festooned with pieces of furniture by the artist Brian Goggin in the foreground.
Despite the scruffiness of the area, the side streets near the Knox are lined with live/work lofts. There are outstanding examples of modern architecture sprinkled throughout South of Market, but it's the wild diversity of the place that creates vitality. The humblest of sheds, the parking lots and gas stations, all are intrinsic to the edgy urban character of the area. Even upscale corporate housing like the Avalon Towers stands next to--perhaps a bit aloofly--its funky neighbors.
Further south in the Mission, a primarily low income Latino neighborhood under great pressure from the encroaching dot-com migration, is Plaza del Sol Apartments. The project blends in unobtrusively, and it certainly doesn't look like subsidized housing. Once in the gate, there are beautifully appointed courtyards with play equipment for kids and mosaic artworks. The architectural style is loosely Mediterranean--or is it San Juan, Havana, or Mexico City? Whatever it is, it inspires a fuzzy sort of comfort and familiarity.
Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco is Emeryville, an urban landscape of great contrasts: freeway flyovers, train yards, big box stores, condos, small factories, warehouses, new media, and biotech. The Emeryville Lofts, part renovated warehouse, part new construction, was designed by David Baker, one of the Bay Area's best architects. The architecture interacts with the rough and tumble physicality of the surrounding neighborhood by subtlely echoing its forms and materials.
One of my photographs shows the complex from the fire escape of a building across the street. A lunch wagon dispensing sandwiches and drinks is parked on the corner catering to the local factory workers. Only a few blocks down the street, however, is the sparkling new headquarters of Pixar, the computer animation firm headed by Steve Jobs, also CEO of Apple. Emeryville doesn't quite cohere as a place--but does it matter?
Oakland, San Francisco's poor cousin across the Bay, has made great strides in recent years to revitalize its neighborhoods and rebuild its center, but I was still surprised to see the success of Acorn Apartments adjacent to downtown. It's essentially a low income gated community with the kind of amenities one expects in the suburbs. I came across one courtyard that presented an image almost too good to be trueŃchildren playing, a maintenance worker sweeping, the sun shining. But the whole complex was like that. In the community computer center a dozen children were spending a part of their spring vacation being tutored by an IBM executive. I knew that drug dealing and gang warfare still roamed the streets nearby, but in here--for now, perhaps forever--those things were banished.
Highway 101 is the main drag between San Francisco and San Jose. The freeway passes by the airport and links the chain of cities that comprise Silicon Valley. In Sunnyvale I photographed the Toscana Apartments, a typically retro-looking complex directly off the freeway. I made a photograph from across the highway, and although it didnŐt look much like a hill town in northern Italy, it did evoke the idea of Tuscany in a na•ve consumer-friendly way, and I was reasonably convinced.
Inside the complex it is even more convincingly a high-tech rental stopover for the upwardly mobile computer cadre. You move in, connect to the T1 line, pick up your FedEx packages from the concierge, and stash your SUV unobtrusively in the underground garage. And if there's time--it didnŐt look like there was much of it while I was there--you can hang by the pool or break a quick sweat in the fitness center.
Not far away, in upscale Mountain View, a roadside shopping center has been supplanted by a new community designed by Peter Calthorpe, a Bay Area proponent of New Urbanism. The Crossings is a vision of small town pre-sprawl America. ItŐs built next to a commuter train station, and shopping is a short walk away. The homes are modest, architecturally traditional, but hard to place stylistically. They are starter houses for young families. There are sidewalks, trees, parks, a gazebo. In my favorite photograph, a red mailbox flag stands at attention waiting for the postman. Illusion and reality are complete.
San Jose is emphatically not San Francisco. But that doesn't stop it from being one of the fastest growing places in the U.S., nor does it seem to give the place much of an inferiority complex. After all, it is the "Capital of Silicon Valley." The downtown has become a cultural mecca with concert halls, museums and a sports arena. The most modest bungalows are so expensive that many have become rental group houses, and garages are illegally let to the working class: the janitors, short order cooks, etc., who have few housing options in the over-heated economy.
Near downtown I photographed another David Baker project, the Pensione Esperanza, a low income residential hotel on a somewhat forlorn stretch of gas stations and strip malls called Bird Avenue. It's a blazingly white multi-faceted structure that I would call polystylistic. One side, on the avenue, presents a commercial face, while on the side street, the wood siding and bay windows say residential. In between, on the corner, is a transitional element that gives a deconstructivist wink to the more sophisticated passersby, but suggests, at least to a few of the building's residents, that the contractor may have misread the plans. To me it is a witty expression of the disjunctive nature of the immediate surroundings. Across the street on a vacant lot, shady looking characters wheel and deal used cars, and who knows what else. In the evening the glowing neon automobile on the Pensione Esperanza welcomes the residents home.
Southeast of downtown San Jose in the hills is the Silver Creek Country Club, a gated golf course community in the familiar California/Spanish style. Spectacularly sited with sweeping vistas of the countryside, it's the ideal home for a certain species of Silicon Valley millionaire. These are people who've perused a few copies of Architectural Digest, and acquired taste and culture the easy way. They bought it. The really big money, however, is in Marin County or up in the Oakland Hills where one-of-a-kind architectural masterpieces overlook the Bay.
During the day, Silver Creek is eerily quiet. Driveways stand empty, garage doors closed. The streets are patrolled by gardeners and handymen in their pick-ups and vans. The light is bright, the air astonishingly clear. Every now and then thereŐs the thwack of a struck golf ball, or a faint splash in a backyard pool. Eventually, the kids come home from school, the soccer moms chauffeur and shop, and the breadwinners pass through the gate safe and sound after battling the traffic on the freeway.
Marin County is one of the most naturally beautiful parts of the Bay Area. It occupies the peninsula north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and much of its breathtaking landscape is State or Federal parkland. Hamilton, a former Air Force base on the flatlands along the Bay, is yet another example of alternative suburban development, in this case where home and workplace exist side by side. The original Air Force buildings are being recycled. Some of them are in a 1930s Spanish style and will be used for seniors' housing or community services. But most spectacularly, the old airplane hangars are to be adapted for commercial use.
There's an obvious disconnect between the housing being built in Hamilton and the older military buildings, which face the streets or stand in a straight line along the former landing field. The new neighborhoods spiral inward on cul-de-sacs with their backs to the earlier architecture. The new Spanish house motifs don't have quite the same character or quality as the older Spanish structures. But it's nevertheless easy to see why people are moving to Hamilton. As one resident said to me as I walked down the street with my camera, "It's affordable Marin County."
East of Sacramento, just in sight of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where the '49ers panned for Gold, two grand scale Del Webb retirement communities sprawl across the Sacramento Valley. I photographed the newest of the two, Lincoln Hills, which was still very much under construction. The marketing of Lincoln Hills, however, was in full swing. I photographed the welcome center, the model homes, and the unfinished houses lining the already completed golf course. The models with their flowing open floor plans, double height spaces and clerestory windows, reminded me how much house layouts have changed since I grew up in a '60s era suburban house. Then, the rooms were often nothing more than simple boxes.
The architecture of the typical American home, whether in an old-style sprawling suburb, or one of the new more compact communities, is about representation and narrative rather than about abstraction and formalism. It can be a high tech machine in its workings, as many of the new houses are, but in style and furnishings it will express cultural values often rendered as historical pastiche. Modern need not mean modernism.
Back in San Francisco I photographed another seniors' project, San Francisco Towers, a hulking post modern pile west of downtown. The neo-Baroque lobby was off limits to photography so I climbed a nearby hill and photographed the building from afar framed by the ubiquitous bay windows of San Francisco's Victorian houses. The Del Webb sales pitch promotes the idea, or illusion, of an active old age--full of sports and outdoor pursuits played out under the bright California sky. San Francisco Towers projects an image of urban sophistication, albeit faux Parisian, with limos standing by to transport one to the opera--or more likely to the doctor's office.
As I flew back east over the Bay and on over the Sacramento Valley I could see the green footprints of the Del Webb golf courses against the dusty surrounding landscape. And then we were over the Sierra Nevada, where the promise of fortune and the good life once beckoned dreamers. California, and the Bay Area in particular, still beckons.