Image credit: Julian Menne

Image credit: Julian Menne


Project: Horizontalism Studio
Class: MArch Studio, California College of the Arts, Architecture Division

Date: Fall 2015
Instructors: Christopher Roach, Antje Steinmuller

in cooperation with the San Francisco Planning Department

There are times when incrementalism just won’t do. This studio is based on the premise that innovative solutions to the housing crisis are a spatial problem that must be approached at the urban scale. It uses the goal of adding 100,000 housing units as an alibi for envisioning radical forms of density that can construct a new vision for San Francisco, one that challenges the relationship between housing typologies, topography, land ownership, public infrastructure, neighborhood services, and new types of public space.

By now the daunting statistics of San Francisco’s housing crisis are all too familiar: Median rents for a one-bedroom apartment are exceeding four thousand dollars, the average cost of building a two-bedroom unit approaches half a million dollars, and the amount of housing added each year falls chronically short of accommodating the city’s population growth. This slow-moving crisis has reached a point where it is impossible to ignore, not only for the mayors, planners, architects, developers, tenants alliances, and neighborhood groups who have been watching the storm build over many years, but also for the general public and the nation at large. This is a crisis that San Francisco can no longer afford to muddle through, and short of a massive influx of public money, most see a dramatic increase in supply as the only workable solution to meet demand and make housing more affordable. In early 2014, the City’s Chief Economist estimated that it would be necessary to build 100,000 units of housing – equal to the amount of units constructed in the city since 1920 – to begin to have a stabilizing effect on median rents. While it is likely that supply alone will not solve San Francisco’s affordability crisis, and that the deeper causes are linked to a regional jobs-housing imbalance, the production of space for housing must be a key component of any solution that is within the purview of architects and planners. Regardless of whether the solution is spatial, economic, or political, it can no longer continue on an incremental, site-by-site approach; it must happen at the scale of the city.

In addition to responding to these economic and social drivers, the studio’s framework is positioned in relation to three recent disciplinary positions. The first is Pier Vittorio Aurelia’s 2015 Yale studio ‘Is Less Enough? 100,000 Houses for San Francisco’, whose starting point was the redefinition of the room – as the most basic form of living space – and its aggregation into collective forms of living and working for the city’s transient populations. Secondly, Preston Scott Cohen’s Gropius lecture from 2013, entitled ‘Successive Architecture’, addressed the problematic of architecture’s formal struggle with vertical stacking produced by ‘Manhattanism’ the contemporary model of urbanism based on multiplication of property value through endless vertical extrusion. The third is the exploration of extreme forms of vertical typologies, both formal and programmatic, that have pervaded recent architecture discourse and practice .

Reaching beyond these formal cliches of density, the studio will pursue a successive architecture that resists endless stacking, but – rather than retreating into the hermetic interior of architectural formalism at the scale of the individual building – attempts to stretch this challenge to the urban scale. Conscious of the rejection of the city in the 1960s megastructures projects of Friedman, Constant, and Superstudio, this studio aims to produce architecture/infrastructure hybrid typologies that embrace the existing city, engage the ground more intimately and intricately, and produce rich new intersections of public and private space in the process.

Rather than building on the ‘Manhattanization’ of SoMa or San Francisco’s public waterfront as the last frontier of development, the studio will focus instead on seven land-locked neighborhood commercial districts as sites for new forms of horizontal density. Its site is the ‘unbuilt city’ of unexploited zoning, targeted zoning changes, transfer of development rights, hybrid public-private solutions, and the possibility of radically restructuring regulatory frameworks. The studio will employ the analytical and representational tools of architects to move beyond the binding dualities in the popular discourse, making visible the hidden potentials for development at the neighborhood level, and manipulating them to project alternative solutions that work across many scales.

The studio will collaborate with the San Francisco Planning Department in its current efforts to develop a density bonus program as a tool to meet housing goals. The studio projects will speculate on provocative ways of implementing these policies as collective urban-scale projects that focusing specifically on the tension between grid and topography as place of opportunity for public benefit. The first weeks of the semester will be concerned with the ‘unbuilt city’ of seven typologies of Neighborhood Commercial districts in San Francisco. Precedents from around the globe will be investigated for strategies that constitute zoning hacks with potentials for intensifying the envelope of the unbuilt city in innovative ways that allow for larger collective forms to be developed in close dialog with San Francisco’s unique topographic conditions. These hacks will be developed into urban scale projects that synthesize non-hierarchical forms of public infrastructure, topographic manipulations and multiplied ground levels, and new forms of horizontally intense density. Heavy emphasis will be on the formal investigation of urban scale architectures that challenge the incrementalism of block-by-block infill and construct new spatial domains for San Francisco.