URBAN TERROIR

CONGREGATION BETH SHOLOM


Terroir refers to the conditions of terrain and microclimate in wine-growing regions and, more specifically, within a given vineyard. It takes in those attributes of place that influence the grapes and thus the wine. Terroir is an evolving context, subject to human intervention and to the vicissitudes of nature in a larger sense. It evolves, but the pace of evolution of its different elements can vary radically. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed.

We use words like structure, scale, density, and fabric to describe the urban context, but these are all elements of something larger. By calling this “something larger” terroir, we raise the possibility of cultivation, but against a deeper background—the regional ecosystem in which a city is situated. Terroir could also be said to be that part of nature we can influence. Thus its boundaries are potentially vast. Exurbia, the embodiment of our economically and culturally divided society, is also a byproduct of a cultivation strategy that treats social displacement in its different forms as an externality. The question of who cultivates, and why, is as legitimate for city making as it is for farming, fishing, or forestry.

Reclaiming terroir

In The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi writes of scale that “it is conceivable that a change in scale modified an urban artifact in some way; but it does not change its quality.” Citing the urban geographer Richard Ratcliff, he adds, “To reduce metropolitan problems to problems of scale means to ignore…the actual structure of the city and its conditions of evolution.”[1] Rossi then quotes the critic Giuseppe Samonà, writing in the mid-1960s.

It is absolutely out of the question, in my opinion, to nurture any idea of gigantic spatial parameters. In truth, we find ourselves, as at all times, in a situation that, from a general point of view, presents man and his space in well-balanced proportion, and in a relationship analogous to that of the ancients, except that in today’s relationship all the spatial measures are greater than were the more fixed ones of fifty years ago.[2]

The key words here are quality, well-balanced proportion, and relationship. What is to be avoided are “gigantic spatial parameters” which ignore or traduce the relationship between “man and his space.” Teroir posits human cultivation, and cultivation in an urban sense is how a city becomes “our space.” In cultivating our urban terroir, we address and value the relationship itself. Whatever furthers it—scale, for example—becomes part of the terroir, cultivated both for its own sake and for what it can contribute to the outcomes we desire to achieve and also to sustain. Sustainability is intrinsic to terroir, one reason why we cultivate it. Structure and scale (for example) lack this connotation. They can be dead, to use Christopher Alexander’s apt word for it; terroir is organic, alive.[3] What gives terroir efficacy compared to words like density or fabric is that it explicitly takes in humanity and nature, so we cannot treat it as a thing unmoored from both.

Resisting gigantism

Samonà cautions us that scale is necessarily a human scale, or gigantism may result. In a different context, Wallace Stegner described his talkative aunt. Finally noticing the huge rock formation rising dead ahead of them—they were in a car—she was rendered speechless, unable to wrap her mind around it. “You have to get used to an inhuman scale,” Stegner wrote.[4] Cities can also have a scale that diminishes the possibility of a human relationship. If we build canyons that become wind tunnels, we have to cultiate the affected streets and plazas to bring them back to life.

If every act of building has the potential to further the human relationship, then gigantism is really an egotism that disregards that possibility. As this suggests, gigantism flows from a willful or mindless ignorance with respect to terroir. Preservationists that reflexively resist higher-density development, privileging their own neighborhoods over the region’s remaining open space, show a similar egotism, yet their fears of gigantism seem justified by experience.[5]

Why is it that we get gigantism much more often than we get urbanity? One could say, borrowing from Jean-François Lyotard, that the “grand narrative” of regional open space preservation, so well accepted by Bay Area opinion makers, has become a pretext for the “soft terrorism” of Smart Growth. The results fall right in line with Lyotard’s now 30-year-old critique: “On the one hand, the system can only function by reducing complexity, and on the other, it must induce the adaptation of individual aspiraions to its own ends. The reduction in complexity is required to maintain the system’s power capability.”[6] This power capability is very much in place. Reforming it doesn’t mean streamlining the process—we tried that under former Mayor Willie Brown—but taking it out of the hands of politicians, restoring consensus and rule of law, yet doing so as postmodernists, accepting nuance and difference.

Rethinking tradition

Entire swathes of San Francisco—neighborhoods we know and love—were built based on a shared understanding of the city’s terroir. The introduction of taller, more massive buildings, first in the financial district and then in lower-density industrial areas to the north and south, ended that consensus. Especially south of Market, the results are mixed. Yet there are a growing number of examples of higher-density projects that achieve the kind of urbanity that we associate with the best of the city’s established districts. Certain architects stand out in their ability to do this across a range of building types and scales, and their work in the city is worth studying as potential precedents.[7] The best new tall buildings around the city’s Mission Street corridor make room for the people on the ground. These aren’t lifeless plazas, either. They’re run just as well as they’re designed, and their owners clearly get that a civic gesture not only buys them constant goodwill, but makes their properties stand out from the competition. The best mid-sized developments create open space and through-block porosity, add balconies that people really use, and vary the height and shape of the buildings and their elements to avoid a monolithic look that substitutes groundscraper for blocky highrise.

Rethinking cultivation

Pattern books were part of a consensus about city form at different levels that made the rule of law in development possible. Although pattern books posited specific designs, they were liberally interpreted by individual builders. More importantly, they reflected a shared understanding of how neighborhoods took shape, with the underlying house pattern reflecting the way the individual blocks were divided up.

In A Pattern Language,[8] Alexander and his collaborators documented the elements that make everyday life worth living. It may be timely to take their work further—to update the patterns that supported the quality of everyday life in our cities through the early postwar period, but then fell into disuse as the desire for a higher density took hold. We have never really replaced these older patterns, which could be tailored to each and every block. Without them, we are cast adrift in the politicized world of case by case, and cultivation becomes a shouting match. With them, city making can shift back to what it was for eons: a widely-shared human activity.[9]

The cultivation of urban terroir requires this kind of “working” consensus. Despite a planning apparatus and an elaborate playbook, the recent development of cities like San Francisco and Berkeley has mainly reflected the developer-influenced whims of politicians, with each new project serving as a vehicle for securing contributions and bragging rights. Only GSA and the genuinely civic groups responsible for the new public museums have used this license intelligently. Since those philosopher-kings (and queens) are not always available, putting cultivation back in the hands of the community is safer.

The city’s leadership still has a role to play in guiding cultivation. They are the stewards, to use a word that often arises in university campus planning. Part of their responsibility, part of what they steward, is the urban terroir. They have to balance the claims of the region—the necessary preservation of open land, for example—with the claims of the community to live well within necessarily higher densities. They have to connect the dots, do the math, and help the community understand and explore its options—not in abstract, but literally neighborhood by neighborhood. Most of all, they have to avoid the “grand narratives” that paper over false solutions, and acknowledge that consensus can only really be achieved at the local level, as an evolving, constantly negotiated resolution.

The community, too, has responsibilities. Neighborhoods are alive because the people who live there care about them and participate in their cultivation. One way to make this happen is to devolve power to them, but to hand that power over with stipulations. How a higher density is to be achieved is ideally a neighborhood decision. Friedrich Engel’s idea that the housing crisis could be solved by rethinking how existing housing is used is relevant to a number of San Francisco and Berkeley districts.

Density does not always mean bigger—it can also mean used more intensively. Many neighborhoods are working to address urban crime and postearthquake recovery—topics that force them to interact with adjoining blocks to pursue shared interests and initiatives. They could also come to grips with how to meet their communal obligations to the region—to absorb expected population growth, reduce congestion and pollution, use water and energy more efficiently, and preserve the larger ecosystem while maintaining, reviving, and creating urbanity where it counts.

Rethinking participation

At a time when, in virtually every other walk of life, people go online to find information and plug into specific communities to understand their options and track and cultivate their personal interests, the mechanisms of “community” are inefficient and out of touch. The remarkable Obama campaign exemplified what can happen when the means and methods of the rest of life are applied to neighborhood-scale organizing and initiatives: a dialogue becomes possible across “interested” communities, which the official city can support, participate in, and sometimes help frame or augment.[10]

Our cities need to face reality and begin to leverage the tools that everyone else is using now on an individual basis, and put urban on a new footing, so that this shared civic responsibility can be carried out in a more open and balanced way—with the terroir in mind. Politics will continue—this is not an argument for “good government.” That said, bringing the city and the community back on the same page is a necessity, both to define a new consensus about the city’s cultivation, one neighborhood at a time, and to recognize that the relationship between them has to change. The city’s broad powers will be curtailed, while the community will have more to do. Every neighborhood will need to tend its own vineyard, with a better understanding of how this contributes to the urban terroir. —John Parman

Notes
1. Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, 1982, pages 160–161.
2. Rossi is quoting (on page 161) from an essay by Giuseppe Samonà, published in 1964.
3. Alexander’s insistence, in The Nature of Order, that we measure the built realm by its vitality, radically asserts its connection to the rest of life. Alexander, the Tolstoy of architectural theory, is much criticized for his discursive and messianic writings, but on the fundamentals, he has always been on to something.
4. Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry Land,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Modern Library, 2002, pages 52–54. The quote reads, “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.”
5. It is not just regional open space that is treated as an externality by gigantism of this sort; the homeless are another “urban externality” that mysteriously drops out of the frame of neighborhood preservation on the one hand and high-density redevelopment on the other. One could mention the exclusionary nature of public employment here, too: no sign of the poor sweeping up the parks, for example, and their rifling of recycling bins is considered a crime in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Berkeley.
6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, page 61. The book was first published in 1979. It’s interesting to me that Rossi, Alexander, Lyotard, and others—like Ivan Illich, Jane Jacobs, and Paul Feyerabend—whose works also have a bearing, directly or indirectly, on the theme of terroir, were all writing around the same time. That period was characterized by left/right debates on issues that are back on the table today, from oil shortages to urban terrorism. It ended with the US and the UK shifting rightward toward unfettered global capitalism. As the US now shifts the other way, let’s hope we learned something in the interim.
7. For example: SOM’s 101 Second Street, St. Regis, and UCSF Mission Bay Housing; Pelli Clarke Pelli on Mission Street; Studios on Howard Street; Stanley Saitowitz on Folsom Street and on 14th Avenue; Leddy Maytum Stacey on Sixth Street; Thom Mayne/Morphosis on Seventh Street; and David Baker on Eighth Street and elsewhere. There are others, but collectively they are the exception and banality is the rule—in a city that is remarkably and even courageously cosmopolitan in many other respects.
8. Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, 1977. Alexander is best at recording specific attributes of towns and cities—their settings at different scales—that make them truly livable and enjoyable. His willingness to say that we know if a place or a building is alive or dead restores ordinary people to their rightful place as measurers of all they survey. When we start to consider new patterns of city making that are in tune with humanity and nature, we often find that Alexander has been there before us. We may not agree with his account of the terrain, but we can appreciate what he knows and what he’s seen.
9. Ivan Illich comments on modernity’s “loss of proportionality” or “common sense” (in The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, Anansi, 2005, pages 136–137):

This loss of proportionality points to the historical uniqueness of modernity, its incomparability. The poetic, performative quality of existence was erased and forgotten in field after field… And in this transition from a world based on experience of fit, of appropriateness, to a world which I can’t even name, a world in which words have lost their contours, what was once called common sense has been washed out. Common sense, as this term was used of old, meant the sense of what fits, what belongs, what is appropriate. It was by common sense, for example, that the physician understood the limits of what he could and should do.

Illich and Alexander share a sense that modernity is fatal to humane patterns of living/being. I think they would argue, in contrast to Samonà’s statement about scale in a modern context, that gigantism is inherent—that is, a constant danger—in the modern loss of proportionality and common sense (as Illich puts it). In an earlier introduction to Illich and his work (Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, page 15), David Cayley writes that Illich, drawing on the work of Leopold Kohr, who pioneered a philosophy of social size, claimed that:

To each social environment there corresponds a set of natural scales. … In each of these dimensions, tools that require time periods or space or energies much beyond the order of corresponding natural scales are dysfunctional.

In Rivers North, Illich describes the introduction of tempered scales in music (pages 134–136)—a passage that suggests to me that modernity requires us to find “tempered” forms that can be harmoniously combined. We have to “learn not to hear disharmony,” he says. Perhaps we have to learn not see it, either, in order both to feel at home in the modern city to begin to reclaim it for ourselves. It is in this spirit that I point to Saitowitz’s Congregation Beth Sholom and Mayne’s Federal Office Building, each of which has been accused (by John King and Dean Macris, respectively) of disharmony—buildings that are tempered as the latter building’s neighbor, the SoMA Grand, is not. Seeing them, I felt that each fits harmoniously with its context, but in a new way. By studying this “new way,” we may be able to find new patterns of city making that are suited to the city we’ve become. (By Pattern I mean precedents that suggest ideas about how to work—plan, design, and build—in a given context.)
10. In Berkeley, Kitchen Democracy provides an online forum to discuss and weigh in on issues of public debate. There are signs that the city’s leaders are paying attention. Some question if this is really participation, but it may be where it needs to go to be effective.

Written in November and December 2008 and published in LINE’s “Slow” issue, January 2009.

Photo of Stanley Saitowitz’s Congregation Beth Sholom by Rien van
Rijthoven.

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)

Website: http://complace.j2parman.com

Contact: j2parman@yahoo.com

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