Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 18, 2019
Alison Isenberg Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 432 pp.; 43 color ills.; 115 b/w ills.; 158 ills. Cloth $37.50 (9780691172545)

If books were buildings, then recent scholarship on urban development in the post–World War II United States would make a dense city indeed. And those works have offered an ever-widening range of assessments of the nature, shape, costs, and benefits of postwar redevelopment. Over the last decade, historians have looked beyond the roles of architects and planners; considered development practices that crossed municipal and national borders; and sought to escape analytical frameworks built around binaries of top-down versus bottom-up, large- versus small-scale, or modern versus historic.

With Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, Alison Isenberg breaks yet more new ground. By shifting focus west to San Francisco and taking a broad view of the projects that defined that city’s postwar transformation, Isenberg paints a portrait of urban development as contingent and shaped by many hands. Urban development, she convincingly shows, saw the constant movement of ideas, techniques, and people between the public and private sectors, involved everyone from publicists to artists to graphic designers, drew from and influenced building practices far outside urban and even suburban contexts, and involved competing visions beyond the Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs dichotomy.

Two major arguments grow from this analysis. First, Isenberg contends that scholarly emphasis on the formal design professions has given only a partial picture of postwar urban development. She instead “center[s] . . . the sustained, networked participation of allied professionals in the novel projects of the day” (10), giving related fields a prominence that is about more than recovery—it also provides a more accurate picture of the collaboration key to complex urban projects. Second, Isenberg claims that questions of land stewardship provided crucial lenses through which people understood and debated urban development in this era, but subsequent historical accounts have largely overlooked this importance of land. In particular, she argues that debates over whether land should remain in public or private hands, leased out by city officials or sold to developers—what she terms the “competition for urban land” (19)—were fundamental to contemporary interpretations of the consequences of development.

These arguments coexist, if not always perfectly, over ten chapters that generally proceed chronologically while emphasizing key projects in San Francisco and its hinterlands. Each focuses on one of the allied fields associated with development in this era; while she discusses well-known designers including Lawrence Halprin, William Wurster, and Charles Moore, they never stand at the middle of Isenberg’s analysis. Instead, we meet museum director and activist Karl Kortum, property managers Caree and Stuart Rose, and model makers Virginia Green and Leila Johnston. Or we see renowned figures, like artist Ruth Asawa, but in a new context as participants in shaping urban development.

Isenberg begins by considering Kortum in the first chapter, especially through his work imagining the future of San Francisco’s waterfront beginning in the 1940s. Kortum envisioned the waterfront remaining in public hands and saw preserved historic buildings as a core part of that future, anticipating the strategy that would later be celebrated at the city’s Ghirardelli Square. Isenberg’s tenth and final chapter focuses on lawsuits over “street vacations,” or the sale of public streets to private developers for incorporation in large projects. Main characters include Kortum, his wife Jean Kortum, and several supportive lawyers. They opposed vast projects such as the San Francisco International Market Center and Transamerica Pyramid that threatened to permanently privatize public land and transform waterfront neighborhoods. This compelling chapter makes a case for thinking through the public-private land question by arguing that opponents of street vacations were not selfishly focused on protecting their homes’ views; they were offering a broader “citywide principle of public land stewardship” (323).

These endpoints suggest a consistent focus on land stewardship throughout the book. But many in-between chapters focus instead on a variety of creative fields that interacted with architecture and urbanism to shape projects including Ghirardelli Square, the Sea Ranch, and the Golden Gateway urban renewal effort. Several stand out as especially illuminating; indeed, despite the book’s insistence on the need to understand the importance of land, not just landscape (e.g., “building height, mass, location, view corridors, and architecture,” 304), the most compelling chapters consider the most visually and formally rich subjects. These provide engaging images, to be sure, but also offer new perspectives on the nature and process of design in this period.

Consider, for example, the eighth chapter, which focuses on Green and Johnston. Their company, Architectural Models, Inc., became one of the nation’s major model-making outfits, whose depictions of proposed projects “had the capacity to swing urban design decisions” (238). As Isenberg explains, they functioned not simply as support staff but in “feedback loops” (244) that saw model makers creating three-dimensional representations that then influenced design development. Or consider the push-pull dynamic between collaborators discussed in the fifth chapter. One especially evocative—and humorous—example involved Caree Rose, Ghirardelli Square’s property manager, who changed the plants selected by Halprin’s office after construction as she tailored the landscape to be functional. Though replacing Virginia creeper with Boston ivy is a modest change, such examples suggest how multiple parties—not only famous designers—shaped iconic projects.

Marion Conrad, the major subject of chapter 6, shaped Halprin’s work too. A star publicist and one of the book’s most colorful characters, Conrad garnered national press coverage for Halprin through tireless efforts on his behalf, demonstrating that marketing, and not simply design innovation, assured his prominence among modernists. Likewise, Conrad helped turn the Sea Ranch, an experimental venture far from San Francisco, into a viable project through relentless publicity, including placement in national and international publications. The Sea Ranch also brings Bobbie Stauffacher into this history in the seventh chapter. A graphic designer, Stauffacher “helped mark her clients’ architecture as attention worthy and successful” (198) with her work, most notably in the iconic supergraphics that covered interiors in the development’s shared facilities and in its famous ram’s head logo. Often uncredited or undercredited, Stauffacher’s graphic design was both important in establishing the architectural aesthetic of the late 1960s and easily obscured or obliterated. That was the case for the supergraphics, which lasted only a few years, and for Stauffacher’s reputation, which was subsumed by the larger ones of Charles Moore and others. Stauffacher had mixed feelings too, finding that, in the end, her graphic design became a vehicle for selling a private project that made ecological promises but developed land that had once been eyed for a state park. Here land stewardship surfaces in the book once again.

Though development and design are collaborative endeavors, it is difficult to capture this reality in historical accounts of architectural and urban projects. Yet Isenberg does this well. In casting a wide net, Designing San Francisco provides a richer, more equitable, and inarguably more accurate picture of the people involved in these projects. In particular, through Asawa, Caree Rose, Green and Johnston, Conrad, and Stauffacher, among others, she shows the fundamental roles that women played in the history of postwar development. Though their positions as property managers or publicists were considered support roles—a gendered view—Isenberg explains convincingly that they did not remain at the margins as projects unfolded. She has raised the bar for subsequent historians to credit design responsibilities beyond the named partner of the primary firm.

That said, a deficit in the book is the absence, for the most part, of race as a factor in this more inclusive portrait. For instance, in concluding chapter 10 Isenberg brings up the role of the San Francisco Sun-Reporter, an African American newspaper. But except for a brief discussion of the Sun-Reporter in the book’s introduction, there is no extended consideration of the part its journalists and other African Americans played as allied professionals who shaped an understanding of land’s importance in development. Nor do areas of intensive development with large African American populations, like the Western Addition, receive much attention. Race is discussed in the conclusion through the question of black land ownership, but the given example is from Washington, DC, which seems to only highlight the absence of fuller consideration of the role African Americans played in this history in the Bay Area.

Still, Designing San Francisco has many strengths, from a willingness to problematize icons of this era, especially the Sea Ranch, to an imaginative conception of the players and sites of this architectural and urban history. Isenberg brings in unexpected but relevant cases, from the Village Fair, a Sausalito shopping center (converted from an old parking garage) that influenced Ghirardelli Square, to the typeface Helvetica, carried by Stauffacher from Switzerland to the Pacific Coast, where she made it a defining feature of the region’s modernist built environment. The result is an imaginative and often revealing history. 

Land continues to be a contested commodity in the Bay Area today, as the region tips ever further into an affordability crisis, and landscape likewise remains contested, as tech redefines the region’s built environment. Designing San Francisco is, if not a guidebook to dealing with such dilemmas, at least a carefully constructed reminder that these questions are not new.

Brian D. Goldstein
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania