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Starchitect for the Common Man

Joanne Furio | November 27, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life

NOT FAR FROM city hall, past the mundane civic buildings and the blur of nondescript apartment houses that morph from white to gray to beige, it hits you. Pow! A blast of chartreuse, a slatted skin of saturated brown, a jigsaw of right-angled sun shades against a plane of bright white. Instead of a monolithic block, the structure is an orchestra of contrasting shapes and colors. Suddenly, it's exciting to be a pedestrian again.

And all this from a residential building for the formerly homeless. The year-old Richardson Apartments go beyond simply injecting a dose of color into the dour intersection of Fulton and Gough streets. They imbue the streetscape with qualities rarely associated with affordable housing: serendipity, expressiveness, artistry, jazz. What's more, the same phenomenon is happening all over the city, in the Fillmore, Bayview, and soon, Potrero Hill.

Call it the Bakerification of our urban environment. If one architect could be said to be changing the way we experience San Francisco today it would be David Baker, the 62-year-old veteran building who's made his name by rethinking the way we live. Instead of constructing the same old towers of concrete and steel, Baker has made his mark over the past 30 years by building low-rise residential complexes, from affordable apartments to market-rate condos, and by revamping or creating entire neighborhoods.

A devoted urbanist who gave up his car 11 years ago, Baker has a pedestrian-friendly approach that nudges residents, no matter who they may be, to engage with each other, the shops, the streets, and the community. The Richardson Apartments, for example, have a lounge, a program room, a courtyard, and a rooftop garden to encourage the formerly homeless residents to interact. Baker's insistence on storefronts is another hallmark of his ped-friendly style, as is the fact that his communities never include a gate or a mall.

The recently completed Armstrong Place (124 units for families) and nearby Armstrong Senior (116 units plus retail) are transforming Bayview in all these Bakeresque ways. The cool contemporary buildings add an architectural gloss to an area populated by decaying industrial sites, housing projects, and modest single-family homes. Beautifully landscaped courtyards encourage get-togethers, and street-level shops provide much-needed retail in a notoriously marginalized neighborhood that got its first supermarket just last year. Neighborhoods stay safe and vital, the thinking goes, when residents connect with each other and the community at large.

On a national level, Baker's insistence that housing for the poor, elderly, and the homeless can be colorful, exuberant, sustainable, and life-changing has made him a trailblazer in burying the stigma of the "the projects." Three decades ago, as he was designing his first San Francisco complex, an affordable housing development, fellow architects phoned the mayor's office to demand that he be fired. Their gripe: Baker's plans deviated too far from the inoffensive (some might say prisonlike) apartment blocks that epitomized such housing. Instead, Baker's Holloway Terrace in Ingleside offered townhomes with tile roofs and stucco exteriors that harmonized with the neighborhood's single-family homes.

Baker describes his approach in practically religious terms: "a virtuous circle" that creates wins for everybody involved, from residents who are empowered by living in a vibrant environment to neighbors whose property values are lifted by the rising tide. A testament to that thinking: David Baker + Partners just broke ground on a market-rate 63-unit condo complex across from the Richardson Apartments.

The beauty of Baker's buildings, and the reason they're seldom opposed anymore, or tagged with graffiti in tougher neighborhoods, is that they blend in while standing out. "His work manages to be sensitive to context, to culture, and to the particular neighborhood, but also to have a very strong and exciting style," says Dan Adams, a director of program development in the Mayor's Office of Housing, an architect himself, and a resident of a Baker-designed market-rate complex in Oakland.

"David passionately believes that urban places need to be better, and he wants to participate in doing that. He really walks the walk," says Rick Holliday, a founder of Bridge Housing. Holliday hired Baker to create Holloway Terrace and is now a developer of market-rate housing, some of which Baker has designed.

Next up for Baker: Archstone Potrero, a new neighborhood on the border of Potrero Hill and Mission Bay that will provide almost 500 units, along with a one-acre public park that is expected to add new vitality to the former "brownfield" (industrial) site. (Baker jokes that it's a "landscraper" compared to Frank Gehry's 8 Spruce Street in Manhattan, the tallest residential tower in the Americas.) The project is slated for completion in 2015, and so far there has been no significant opposition. One thing's for sure: No one will be calling the mayor's office to complain about how it looks.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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