Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dwell on design

Has it really been three years since I last wrote on these pages? No major things to report here, but to direct anyone who reads this to go right now to the Dwell magazine site and vote for Biff's to be preserved.


Friday, July 10, 2009

the endless city

Last week I had the great fortune of camping in the hills above Oakland. My friends joked that I was camping out at our former design chair's house, but the reality is much stranger and more pedestrian at once.

The park at Anthony Chabot Lake provides on the one hand perspective on what it means to live in the city today, while also allowing us to reflect on the cities and civilizations nature makes for itself.

Far above the fray one can still hear the BART, the occasional siren, all those key ambient noise elements of the Oakland Experience. But one also encounters wild turkeys, brave raccoons, and the whoosh trees and bushes make in the mild winds on the lake trail.

Perhaps it's an ongoing fascination with process or equating industry with progress, but I find the sight of unfinished architecture much more exciting sometimes than the finished product. Once the building is done, we can all step back with our pens and blogs and chatter away or walk around the thing and get the glossy real estate story. But during building, there is still potential energy, invention, making-do and make believe.

Nature keeps building and transforming after trees have fallen and fires have come and gone. You can see this in rainforests and even in Chabot: new growth popping out of dead matter, taking over but not erasing. This is what makes the areas around Biff's and Valdez interesting from an urbanist perspective: you can see every day traces of the past and growths of the future, constantly becoming, transforming, mutating and engaging.

Let the City be the City and Nature be Nature: one not necessarily an escape from the other but commenting on it, reflecting it, acting as mirror image and influencing our path toward the future.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Three streets

Coming home from Thursday night's stakeholder meeting of the Broadway/Valdez Specific Plan, I was struck at how the day had formed a perfect case study for some of the ideas about density that I'm reading in Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. One idea in particular that stands out is her thesis that the most vital neighborhoods have a blend of the old and the new, as well as a diversity of uses behind those facades. You can see this in action in three distinct (and vital) neighborhoods: the 24th Street corridor in San Francisco's Mission district, Manhattan's St. Mark's/Lower East Side, and Alameda's Park Street commercial strip.

Earlier in the day I had taken a walk down 24th to meet a friend for lunch on Alabama. The neighborhood still has a strong Latin flavor, mixed with the skinny-pants bleeding edge hipsterdom that leaks over from Valencia and Guerrero. But not one flavor dominates. Twentysomethings on fixed-speed bicycles mix with Mexican families in cowboy hats and bolo ties and "independent contractors" trying to sell you books and music on a blanket laid out on the sidewalk. You notice the diversity in building use and architecture as well: THX 1138 mod BART styling becomes California gothic cafe to Art Deco cinema-performance space to Victorian walkup flat. The eye has somewhere to travel, with varying degrees of height and color. The prevalence of street murals doesn't hurt, either.

Alameda's Park Street has a more conservative blend of styles and uses; for starters, it's cleaner and less urban than 24th. Its strengths lie again in variety of building height and usage. Looking up from the pedestrian street you can see diners in the upper floors of the China House restaurant on the corner of Park and Santa Clara. You can get Mexican food, toys and comics, coffee and ice cream and antiques here. Chain blends with independent. Side streets invite exploration.

St. Marks has the great advantage of being part of an island that few tourists want or need to drive through. You are immediately engaged with the action on the streets and the windows of the tenements and businesses that open to the sidewalk. Like 24th, there is a variety in building height, age, style, and function. Blocks are short, breaking up the monotony one finds in the outer boroughs of a place like Queens. While Oakland is primarily a car-based city and reflects this reality in its strip design, it is important to bring Manhattan into the dialogue for contrast.

For a future Biff's to succeed as a pedestrian-friendly destination, it must engage with its surrounding streets and act as punctuation for the Valdez strip. Its placement on the 27th street island gives it a unique advantage in that it can draw people from Broadway as well as Valdez.

The great truth about Broadway is that few people will want to walk its expanse. It is a boulevard for the car to bring motorists into downtown. Could this wide street learn from even wider boulevards around the world, from New York to Paris, on how to soften the impact of the car? The Valdez approach treats the area organically from the bottom-up rather than top-down. We are seeing the Uptown area transformation in pieces from Luka's to the Fox to Flora to the new apartment buildings and the Art Murmur that fills its streets. All of these pieces of the puzzle bubble up into the area that Biff's occupies.

I'm going to use a typographical book metaphor to conclude. Perhaps what can be gleaned from the successes of these three streets is the necessity for punctuation, diversity, and variety of spatial use and function. Look at the book page (and if you want to be specific I'm looking at Donald Barthelme's Eugenie Grandet in his Sixty Stories collection): White space with title in 18pt. type. White space. Quote in 10pt. type. White space. Begin story in 12pt. type. White space. Bullet. Story in 12pt. type. Hand drawing.

What have we learned here? That Barthelme is a visual writer, sure. But transpose this onto the cityscape and what do you get? 24th Street, St. Mark's, Park: Space, big statement, space, smaller statement, space, story, stop, short story, mural. Ultimately it's the difference between the monotonous 1950s Stalinist housing block and the messy, lively jazzy Greenwich Village street. Or the difference between Barthelme and a tax document. The end result and the effect on our spirits is the same: engagement vs. deadening. Building up or beating down. Let's keep building up, engaging the street, engaging the pedestrian, punctuating the space.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A brief history of Biff's

From Randy Garbin's Roadside #32 "Oakland Emerging":

"Biff's Coffee Shop, a circular restaurant designed by noted Googie-style architects Armet & Davis, opened in Oakland at the tail end of the "Populuxe" era. As defined by Thomas Hine in his book Populuxe, Googie fit into the post-war optimism that lasted until 1964, the final year of the New York World's Fair. Not long afterwards, America plunged into an orgy of Early American and Environmentalist design influences, leaving these odd space-age architectural anomalies to stand out in the landscape like crashed UFOs.

Biff's did a fine business into the 1980s when it eventually became J.J.'s Diner, but then closed after four more years of operation. In stepped Chevron Oil, which owned the property and planned to demolish the dowdy structure to erect a gas station/fast-food/quickie-mart mutation. Into the breach rushed about 50 concerned citizens mindful that Biff's had once served as an anchor for the local neighborhood. These activists reminded the city that the place represented one of the last coffee shops from this era and one of the few in the Bay Area. Calling themselves the Friends of J.J.'s, the group sought to help market this property to prospective restaurateurs looking to take advantage of the Oakland revitalization."

"Supportive elements for the Biffs restaurant included a palm tree and signs (internally illuminated neo-60s on original crossed pole supports, replacing animated neon bullseye "Biff's" sign).

The Biff's/JJ's restaurant was vital to the livelihood of the Broadway Autorow community especially the senior citizens from several senior residential centers located on 28th Street."

Special thanks to Randy Garbin ( and Charles Brown. These pieces originally appeared in Roadside Magazine and the Beat 8 newsletter, respectively.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Let's start with the topic of transformation. Imagine the Broadway strip as it was in the 1950's. The age of the automobile and the visions of Sputnik and UFOs landing down on a slowly-darkening twilit California Summer night. You've got your girl by your side and you're looking for some grub; a late night snack before the day is done. Where do you go?

Fast-forward 50 years. The skeletons of Art Deco days past litter the post-industrial landscape like so many downtowns across the nation. Life pops up in the shells of dealerships and auto-repair warehouses...a live/work loft supper club space here, an installation gallery there. The news from Detroit isn't good: we're moving beyond the car, beyond the 35mph strip gaze and into the hybrid, the green, the walkable smaller boutique cityscape.

Maybe there is a way to harness the jetpack aesthetic of the past and forge into a future architecture: a retro-futurist optimism built on the local, the California vernacular of 24-hr. coffee and burger joints. A way to eat right and small with good friends and good tunes. A way to walk fearlessly into that twilit late-Summer night.

Welcome to the Biff's Renaissance.