The Right Address

I had a billionaire client.
100% 1%.
And he made sure I knew about his jet and his household staff and his wife’s jewels.

One day I was waiting in his office to have lunch with him. An older Chinese guy came through, with a white guy following him taking notes. I overheard, “put statues of tigers facing the elevators. A bowl of water here. Move these chairs from the window.”
Feng Shui.

My first thought: this is medieval.
My second thought: But he’s the billionaire, not me.
Now I’ve got one of those hexagonal mirrors in my office window, but I can’t say I notice any difference in my luck.


That guy moved his office to 88 Kearny, to reap some of the luck from the number 8.

In Chinese superstition, that’s the number to hang your hat on.


From this morning’s paper.

The thing is, the Chinese word for 8 sounds a lot like發: “wealth”.

The Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/08.  At 8 minutes and 8 seconds after 8 PM.

New developments here in San Francisco seek 8s in their addresses:

8 Washington Street (which actually seems kind of cursed; opponents have put it on the November ballot),


8 Octavia, under construction.

and the grand slam of 888 Brannan Street.

I worked on the conversion of that building from warehouse to offices. My first client lost the building to the lender (not so lucky) and then I was hired by the new owner, who had better luck. It’s the new headquarters of Airbnb.

Not so lucky: the number 4, which sounds an awful lot like 死, “death”.

444 Market Street even changed its name, to 1 Front Street.

I attended the groundbreaking for a high rise that included a ritual involving tossing dyed rice in the air. Not so lucky for me, I got red spots on my jacket. The building was never built and the developer went bankrupt.

Maybe you’re more modern and not easily spooked. This stuff seems silly and not very modern.

ShanghaiMissingFloorsLike in this Shanghai elevator, skipping both the 13th and 4th floors

But honestly, wouldn’t this address make you uneasy?

13 w 13


The Street I Live On

The street I live on is only two blocks long, lined with Victorian houses.  It’s in about the geographic center of San Francisco,  There are street trees and front yards (unusual for San Francisco) and in the spring it smells of Jasmine.  The neighbors are a mix of old-timers and gentry, gay and not, with lots of kids.  Across the street, three households have joined their backyards so the kids have more play space.

Every year there’s a block party and some of the guys on the block play in a band.  A neighbor supplies beer he makes in his garage.

We even have an e-newsletter.  We let each other know of the need for volunteers for the street fair, about our current crime wave, and referrals for tree trimmers or handymen.

Lately the big topic has been the street itself. The City recently dug up a trench to replace the century-old water pipes.  Then they graded and laid asphalt down half the surface.

h street

Some of the neighbors are upset that only half the street was repaved.

From the newsletter, emails, and Facebook:

  • It’s the City of San Francisco that is to blame for this total balls up of a result.
  • Never heard of such a thing. Bizarre. God bless government.
  • The new paving looks ridiculous.
  • It’s this kind of bureaucratic SNAFU that makes no sense. Could no one even conceive of the whole picture?
  • I am speechless, this is the worst repaving work I have ever seen.
  • You don’t see 1/2 the streets paved in Pacific Heights or the Marina!

Our local representative wrote back that the other half will be paved. So maybe it’s temporary.

Honestly, in the 20 years I’ve lived on this block I never paid any attention to the surface of the street.  Until now.

street splat1

It’s got some great splats.

street plants

Plants can survive.  Amazing.

manhole 2

Something’s under there.

street text2

There is cryptic text.


It’s patched.

I love my street.  But this isn’t about the geography or the architecture or the landscaping or the people of my street.  It’s about the street: pitted, scarred, faded, pocked, scratched and patched.

And yours?  Take a look.

The Cities Where Things Are Born

Your sneakers.

The plastic spoon that came with your soup.

The zipper in your pants.

All the stuff at the dollar store.

Your smartphone.

Just about everything advertised in magazines.

What do they have in common?


They are yours only on their way to the landfill.

And they were almost certainly made in China. There, they make the products we buy – but first they make the cities that make them.

Sonaxia City makes 350 million umbrellas a year.

1/3 of the world’s socks are made in Datang.

Chenghai is the City of Toys, with more than 5,000 factories.

40% of the world’s neckties are from Shengzou and 70% of the world’s cigarette lighters are born in Wenzhou.

Buttons: Qiaotou.


These factory towns sprout pretty fast.

Here, a description from National Geographic:

“At 2:30 in the afternoon, the bosses began designing the factory. The three-story building they had rented was perfectly empty: white walls, bare floors, a front door without a lock.

On the first floor, we were joined by a contractor and his assistant. There was no architect, no draftsman; nobody had brought a ruler or a plumb line. Instead, Boss Gao began by handing out 555-brand cigarettes. He was 33 years old, with a sharp crewcut and a nervous air that intensified whenever his uncle was around. After everybody lit up, the young man reached into his shoulder bag for a pen and a scrap of paper.

First, he sketched the room’s exterior walls. Then he started designing; every pen stroke represented a wall to be installed, and the factory began to take shape before our eyes. He drew two lines in the southwest corner: a future machine room. Next to that, a chemist’s laboratory, followed by a storeroom and a secondary machine room. Boss Wang, the uncle, studied the page and said, “We don’t need this room.”

They conferred and then scratched it out. In 27 minutes, they had finished designing the ground floor, and we went upstairs. More cigarettes. Boss Gao flipped over the paper.

“This is too small for an office.”

“Put the wall here instead. That’s big enough.”

“Can you build another wall here?”

In 23 minutes, they designed an office, a hallway, and three living rooms for factory managers. On the top floor, the workers’ dormitories required another 14 minutes. All told, they had mapped out a 21,500-square-foot (2,000 square meters) factory, from bottom to top, in one hour and four minutes.”

Three months later the factory was producing bras.

Here are the photos from the article:

These factories are cities, with hospitals, schools, huge dormitories, internet cafes, banks, TV stations, and fire departments. Foxconn City, the Taiwanese-owned facility where iphones are cranked out, has 420,000 workers. It’s in Shenzen, which grew from a fishing village of 280,000 to a city of 14 million in 30 years. Shenzen is in the Pearl River Delta, established as an anything-goes trade district in 1980. The Delta has 200,000 factories. With the loosening of trade, foreign investment, and mobility regulations, 30 million rural Chinese picked up and moved to these factory cities.


Now, escalating land prices, increasing environmental protection, and increasing competition from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other regions within China have led to abandonment.

china polluted factory

According to “Factory Towns of South China, an Illustrated Guidebook”:

“The 2008 financial crisis saw a hollowing out of 600,000 workers from the Pearl River Delta at one stage. Smaller towns formed with more than 75% of migrant worker residents would be transformed into ghost towns overnight… One factory owner even imagined his factory to sit on a boat, so that it could sail from country to country depending on minimum wage fluctuations. ”

These cities are like the products they make: cheap and disposable.

Let’s go back and visit that bra factory:

“The former Yashun factory was unlocked. Inside, bra rings were strewed everywhere— bent rings, dirty rings, broken rings. There were crumpled cigarette packages and used rolls of tape. An empty diaper bag. A wall calendar frozen at November 22. A good luck charm with Mao Zedong’s face on one side and a bodhisattva on the other. And throughout the dormitories, on the white plaster walls, graffiti had accumulated over the months. Next to his bed, one worker had listed numbers: winning lottery combinations.”

Modern Design: The kind you don’t bring home to mother

Who doesn’t like to look at modern design – the sleek lines, the irony, the minimalist clarity.  So cool.  So clean. What Tom Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus to Our House, called

“ the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all”.

But we have a love/hate relationship with it.

My late Uncle Stanley was an architect and he lived in a modern apartment house in Manhattan. My Aunt Doris and my grandmother lived in the same building. And so did Marcel Breuer; so you know it was modern.  Modern as it was, you’d go up the elevator past the wallpaper of birds and flowers into my grandmother’s Victorian parlor.

Here’s a house my uncle designed in 1960 in Cincinnati.   Image

It was even reviewed in Domus, the Italian design and architecture magazine.

Here’s what Lynn Gordon, who grew up in the place, wrote:

 “If modernism = minimalism and simplicity, then family = clutter and entropy.”

Her article is entitled, “What Was Dad Thinking?”


“The living room with its cork floor was off-limits for play.”

Many modern homes aren’t really…. domestic. They’re “machines for living”. But who wants to live in a machine?


I remember a dinner party at the home of local modernist architect where the living room was like a doctor’s waiting room.  In East Germany.

An icon of modern architecture is La Maison de Verre, The House of Glass, in Paris by Pierre Chareau.


We visited once and met the girl who lived in the house, a descendent of the gynecologist who had commissioned it. She was jumping rope in the courtyard.  In French we asked what it’s like to live there and in French she answered:  “C’est triste”.  “It’s sad”.

For a great source of miserable looking modern design victims, you can’t do any better than the website Unhappy Hipsters  and their book, It’s Lonely in the Modern World. Their team captions photos from Dwell and other design magazines. In their impeccable homes, they all look triste.


Pensive glances. Effortless ennui. It all takes practice.(Photo: Andrew Meredith; Dwell)

Sure, these places look beautiful.  But as Rick James sang, they’re not the kind you take home to mother.




You wouldn’t use the juicer to juice anymore than you would want to linger on this chair.  That’s not what they’re about.  Like so much modern design, they’re to be admired, not used.

But in a pinch, uses can be found:


Saul Steinberg, Feet on Chair, 1946 Ink over pencil on paper, 9 7/8 x 9 ¼ in.

Private collection ©  permission of The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Changes: Small, Big, and Mammoth

Cities change.

Sometimes it’s incremental and happens in just a few years:

This was the Transbay Terminal, at First and Mission Streets,  up to last year, San Francisco’s hub of trains and buses at one time:

Soon, it will look like this.

And coming across Mission Street:

61 stories

This empty lot in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood

Became this:

(I was the developer of this project, a combination grocery store, public library and housing.)

In 2016, this:

will become this:

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expansion

The changes can take centuries.

This bucolic scene:

1802 – 1814

became this:

and wound up like this:

Rockefeller Center

In 1816,this was the scene at 16th and Dolores in the Mission, about 5 blocks from my apartment:

These changes are no big deal.

This year, on the site of the Transbay Terminal, a backhoe unearthed an 11,000-year-old tooth of a Woolly Mammoth. Today, tech workers and secretaries graze here on their lunch hours, but then it was this guy:

We marvel at the changing city – the restaurants opening and closing, the skyline changing. 11,000 years from now what eyes will gaze at First and Mission, and what will they see?

Cities Destroyed

You read a lot about the creation of cities.  In my world that’s the work we do.  But let’s take a moment to reflect on the flip side: the destruction of cities.

Sometimes it is nature.

New Orleans

Pompeii, 79 CE

Or San Francisco in 1906:

“twenty years to build, twenty seconds to destroy”

There’s a 2:1 chance of a repeat in San Francisco in the next 25 years.  But we mostly ignore it.

Sometimes it’s something we do to each other:

Like London during the Blitz

Or Nanking, Hiroshima, Beirut, Dresden, Guernica, Helsinki, Beijing, Bucharest, and Cologne.

In the Second World War, both the Allies and the Axis airforces bombed Bucharest.

Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Budapest, Stalingrad and Leningrad.  100,000 killed in one night in Tokyo.  Lovers and love letters alike, burnt.

Even Atlanta.

Divine Intervention

To really slap down a city, there is nobody like God. Like the destruction of Sodom:

Or the Flood, which took out every city and town.

Many people look forward to the Rapture.

(also tough on cities)

Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush really thought this will happen.  So do all the evangelical Christians. It understandably makes it difficult to plan ahead. Which explains a lot.

Please take a moment to remember fallen cities.


If you’re looking for an architect you might be drawn to a Modernist or a Postmodernist or even a Brutalist.

But if you have in mind a Surrealist, Frederick Kiesler (1890 – 1965) is your man.

Kiesler isn’t very well known – his most famous work was an art gallery for Peggy Guggenheim, Art of This Century in NY (1942).

Also, he was Hedy Lamarr’s uncle.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

Surrealist architecture isn’t very practical, which many clients consider a shortcoming.

And Kiesler set a standard for impracticality.

“If Kiesler wants to hold two pieces of wood together, he pretends he’s never heard of nails or screws. He tests the tensile strengths of various metal alloys, experiments with different methods and shapes, and after six months comes up with a very expensive device that holds two pieces of wood together almost as well as a screw.”

Architectural Forum, 1947.

He was short on built projects (and short himself: under 5 feet, he said, “Genius and talent is hardly ever given to tall people”).

But he was huge on ideas, like these:

“Art can no longer live in mid-air nor architecture on the ground of business. That’s over.”

“Our Western world has been overrun by masses of art objects. What we really need is not more and more objects, but an objective.”

“Form does not follow function; function follows vision. Vision follows reality.”

And his unbuilt projects had beautifully poetic names:

The city in space

The endless theatre (shaped like an egg)

The endless house:

Space stage (1924)

City in Space (1925)

Horizontal Skyscraper (1925)

Endless Theatre Without a Stage and Four Dimensional Theatre (1926)

The Telemuseum (with walls designed as receiving screens for transmitted pictures – in 1927)

The Flying Desk (1930)

Nucleus House (1931)

Murals Without Walls (1936)

Vision Machine (“quasi-scientific, grandiose yet vague, ideogrammatic and poetic rather than diagrammatic”)(1937)

Mobile Home Library (1938)

Hall of Superstitions (1947)

Grotto for Meditation (in the shape of a dolphin, underground) (1962)

and Tooth House (1948).

His original drawing for Tooth House hangs in my office.

In his whole career, only one Kiesler building was built.

The Shrine of the Book (1965), it is in Jerusalem and houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Six months later, Frederick J. Kiesler was dead.

For more on Frederick J. Kiesler, you might consult Frequently Asked Questions About Frederick J. Kiesler.

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