Under The Surface, Past The Image, and Towards a Conversation: An Interview With TRACE SF: Bay Area Urbanism

“Getting under the surface, past the image, is something words can do well— and should, if we are to broaden how design is valued.” — Brad Leibin, Trace SF.

A common rhetoric of architects, designers, urbanists and connoisseurs of the built environment is that good communication and relevant platforms for consistent conversation don’t exist. Yet the recent increase in recent websites and publications, however–particularly location-based and topic-based sites such as Trace SF: Bay Area Urbanism in San Francisco or Visualizing Systems from Harvard–are demonstrating a willingness to engage and perhaps expand the conversations around the complexity of design.

While the recent essay by Adam Greenfield hints at the fact that the inherent complexity in city undertakings makes them hard to comprehend, let alone communicate–we at Landscape Urbanism are excited by the apparent increase in (digital) places and possibilities for dialogue. This Fall, we had the chance to sit down with the founders and editors of Trace SF to talk about San Francisco’s urban scene and the broader need for communication and dialogue about the future of our rapidly-changing cities.

Landscape Urbanism: What led to the founding of TraceSF?

Yosh Asato: The desire for more critical discussion about the evolution of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area—in all its physical, social and cultural dimensions—has manifested in different publications over the decades. TraceSF is the most recent response. It’s an independent forum for a diverse community of contributors interested in the Bay Area urban environment and the many forces, design included, that shape the region’s culture and future.

LU: What do you think TraceSF has accomplished so far, and how do you hope it will evolve?

Yuki Bowman: Cities are multidisciplinary organisms that require multidisciplinary perspectives in order to be considered in new ways. Our lack of institutional affiliation has allowed us to attract diverse observers and documenters of the city who broaden the dialogue around Bay Area urbanism. More than just another digital publication, we’re hoping that TraceSF will grow into a robust community whose camaraderie and exchange spills over into the off-line world.

LU: What have been the most unexpected discoveries you’ve made since founding  TraceSF, in terms of content, editorial structure, or design?

Yosh Asato: The co-editors began by consciously working together to establish a journalistic point-of-view around which we could shape content, but that ultimately proved to be a false exercise. Once we decided to step back and allow the lens to emerge organically from the community, everything came together. This light touch has come to characterize our editorial style. We’re letting TraceSF evolve out of the different voices and interests of those who are contributing. Moving forward, we’d like to see an even greater variety of content and contributors.  We’re open to almost anything as far as format is concerned—including fiction, graphics, and video—but so far the bulk of our pieces have been written.

LU: There’s been a proliferation of design publications in the past few years. How do you see TraceSF fitting into this movement?

John Parman: Although TraceSF ranges beyond the Bay Area, this region and its cities are its main focus. Coverage by others of this territory is either episodic or colored by a particular cause or agenda. We’re not the only voice, but we hope that we’ll be an influential one—especially in taking up issues that more affiliated parties find politically difficult.

LU: What have been some of the more difficult issues you have tackled, and how do you think your publication has shaped or moved these ideas forward?

Yuki Bowman: One of the more challenging things we’re trying to tackle is to provide a platform where respectful critique and healthy dissent are welcome and encouraged. Living in a small, tight-knit city, it can be tricky to voice opinions that might ruffle feathers. This is exacerbated by our current era of ‘liking’ that, to some extent, glosses over stimulating difference in the interest of consensus. We’d like to believe that difference can be a productive way to further dialogue and foster a culture of courage and respect. I think a couple of pieces that best achieve this are Yosh Asato’s on redevelopment in SOMA,  Tim Culvahouse’s on the bay window redux, and Eva Hagberg’s on the Occupy movement at UC Berkeley.

LU: What’s the role of writing in architecture and urbanism? When is it most successful, when is it least? Do you have any favorite examples?

Brad Leibin: There are arguably two main, equally important roles: one is to create dialogue within the design community and the second is to incite interest within a wider audience. As far as the former role, if designers are going to continue to add value to this ‘urban century,’ as we’re calling the 21st, it’s critical that we look up from our desks and engage the change that is happening in the world.

The second role has to do with communicating with the general public about the impact and value of design. This type of communication has been a longstanding challenge for environmental designers. If you believe, as I do, that many pressing social, ecological, and public health challenges are linked to environment, then this is a real tragedy.

In both cases, the ability to write and tell stories in a way that captures complex issues in straight-forward language is the Holy Grail of design writing. I’d point to the New York Times’ architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, as a successful example. He gets past the form and fashion of individual objects of architecture to more broadly assess “architecture-in-the-city” in a way that is meaningful and legible to a wide audience.

Of course, video and other media will continue to supplant writing as the primary medium for online communication, so we should be looking ahead to hybrid and multi-media ways of articulating ideas, as well.

“The goal of TraceSF is really to broaden the conversation about design in the city, so that the conversation isn’t dominated by “dependent” channels subject to the biases of their sponsors.”

LU: What do we risk in not telling our story? Why is communication so important, and why can’t we seem to do it?

John Parman: The goal of TraceSF is really to broaden the conversation about design in the city, so that the conversation isn’t dominated by “dependent” channels subject to the biases of their sponsors. Lately, the SF Chronicle’s John King has started blogging to expand his coverage, which is a good thing, but he alone provides the “big media” coverage—and on a part-time basis, nonetheless.

Another risk is that important design issues inevitably fall through the cracks. Part of broadening the conversation is following a story, something which is easier for TraceSF than the SF Chronicle. If you can’t follow the story, readers lose the thread and the conversation is diminished. The risk is a loss of community “memory” about topics and issues that regularly recur.

The iconic Pruitt Igoe implosion photograph (via Pruitt Igoe Press). 

Brad Leibin: I  would add that I don’t think the design community can’t communicate. But I think we could benefit from expanding the story we tell. There are so many design journals and blogs There are so many design journals and blogs out there in the world, but so often they emphasize the style rather than the substance of design. The result is that design is understood by the general public as a luxury product rather than as something that is deeply affecting.

“There are so many design journals and blogs out there in the world, but so often they emphasize the style rather than the substance of design. The result is that design is understood by the general public as a luxury product rather than as something that is deeply affecting.”

A few months ago for TraceSF, I reviewed The Pruitt Igoe Myth, a film about the infamous public housing project in St. Louis that was meant to be the solution to urban overcrowding and poverty but that ended instead in physical neglect, social strife and eventually, demolition. The film debunks the myth—established then and accepted to this day by much of the design profession—that Pruitt Igoe’s downfall was emblematic of architecture’s failure to address social problems.

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments in San Francisco. Photo by Matthew Millman via The New York Times.

The ongoing skepticism of design’s social power shows in the fact that today, the story we tell the public about the value of design tends to emphasize formal beauty. Again, to cite Kimmelman as a laudable alternative, he recently wrote an article on two Bay Area housing projects by David Baker and Partners, Tassafaronga Village and Richardson Apartments, emphasizing the role each has played in improving tenants’ lives and revitalizing neighborhoods. That story could not have been shared through pictures alone or even passing by in person. Getting under the surface, past the image, is something words can do well— and should, if we are to broaden how design is valued.


About the contributors:

Yosh Asato is a writer and communications consultant who spends a lot of her free time exploring cities. She lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and works in SoMa.

Yuki Bowman is an architectural designer, writer, and editor living in San Francisco

Brad Leibin is an architectural designer and writer in San Francisco.

John Parman is an editorial adviser to Architect’s Newspaper, a contributor to Arcade, and member of SPUR’s project review committee, and an editor and writer based in San Francisco and Berkeley. He also cofounded and published the quarterly, Design Book Review, 1983-1999.

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