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The Sinking Ivory Tower

San Francisco’s architecture of alienation

 

“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” This may be the truest thing I’ve read about the city’s self-image, and it’s a hollow advertising koan I saw on a scaffolding billboard for the Salesforce Tower, a 61-storey hulking oblong construction site that promises to become a glassy phallus upon completion. The slogan adorning SF’s soon-to-be tallest building captures the city’s growing civic unreality in characteristic terms, its utopian language concealing an ambient existential threat. Reality is an impediment to fulfilling our innermost desires, but many in the tech world seem to take this as a programming issue.  

There is something jarring about the pocket South of Market that stretches west to Harrison, bounded from Second to Main, where I have lived for six months amid an ever-denser thicket of glass skyscrapers, barren spaces, and concrete bluffs. Neglected for decades, it took the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (and the destruction of the geographically divisive Embarcadero Freeway) to make this once hermetic area desirable to developers. In walking distance of the Financial District and the waterfront, this fledgling neighborhood, referred to in government proposals as ‘Transbay,’ is marketed as prime real estate — even if it feels a little like living in a wind tunnel.

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Urban renewal has always been a process of effacement — sometimes by stealth, often by coercion. What we’re left with here is a cumulative blankness: every condominium complex looks sterile, interchangeable. Luc Sante’s description of this sanitized cleanliness in The Other Paris comes to mind: urban development and gentrification gives rise to “monolithic high rises with all the charm of industrial air-conditioning units.” The aesthetic, such as it exists, lacks enough viscerality to be brutal, but the result is certainly not humanizing. The San Francisco Chronicle’s assessment was blunt. “Few of them aspire to architecture,” it said — at least not the kind of architecture that is embedded in a broader political and social project. Many of these new high-rises were approved at the height of the leveraged buyout boom, then stalled during the global financial crisis, and resumed construction once the US economy began to recover, often changing owners in the process.

Their platonic ideal manifests most emphatically in the Millennium Tower, which feels conspicuous even in a city flush with freshly accumulated wealth. In it, the city’s utopian optimism, environmental fragility, and boundless market ambition has found its ideal expression.  

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Everything about the Millennium Tower is obscene. Its name seems retrofuturistic, like it was conceived two decades late. Its marketing copy is unctuous in its literalness: it describes the tower as “rare and precious, shimmering on the skyline like crystal.” It is supposedly “inspired by the very essence of San Francisco itself,” which could be interpreted as real talk or a sublime backhanded compliment. It reminded me of The Shard, the glassy gherkin and literal eyesore that blinds London train drivers whenever the sun hits, another ivory tower manifest.  

Property markets have always functioned as a status-sorting apparatus, but the stakes seem particularly high in a city beset by gaping inequality. As a cradle for the ultra-rich, the Millennium Tower promises exclusivity to the few and alienation to everyone else. The inherent short-sightedness of this economic vision has also manifest in an architecture of incompetence. Built on compacted sand, the Millennium tower is sinking and tilting at faster rates than engineers initially expected. Its foundations are off-kilter, raising safety concerns in a city that is perched on two fault lines. Since its construction was completed in 2009, it has sunk 16 inches into soft soil and assumed a north-western tilt; its lean has been photographed by orbiting satellites.

There’s no consensus about the cause of its subsidence: some engineers argue the foundations should have been drilled into the bedrock, while the tower’s developers lump blame with the construction of the Transbay Transit Center next door, which is said to have resulted in a process called ‘dewatering,’ destabilizing the ground beneath the Millennium Tower and hastening its lurch. Developers are now facing a lawsuit brought by the city, as well as a separate suit from disgruntled tenants, who fear their investments have been rendered worthless. That a penthouse in the building (formerly owned by a prominent venture capitalist) recently collected $13 million in an off-market sale seems to have provided little consolation. Some have taken to uploading strangely mesmerizing videos demonstrating the tilt in action. In one clip, Pamela Buttery, resident and retired real estate developer, putts a golf ball in her living room and watches the ball slow to a halt before it careens leftwards following the building’s lean.

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The Millennium Tower’s troubles have surfaced amid intractable problems of deteriorating housing affordability and worsening conditions for the city’s homeless masses. It is tempting to see the Towers as a flipside of the tent encampments that line the streets in SoMA and the Mission. The local discourse around these issues is hollow: the visibility of the homelessness crisis leads some to treat it as if it were an aesthetic blight rather than a structural problem or market failure. Recently, the tech sector and civic interests seemed to be in constant collision: a seemingly ripe vintage for anti-homelessness rhetoric and misplaced hostility.

In a much-maligned (and since-deleted) Facebook comment, start-up founder Greg Gopman vilified the homeless as “degenerates” who had foisted their presence on the city and wouldn’t leave, like an invasive species. “In other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves,” he wrote. “They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests.” Fake meritocracy can mess with one’s mind. Gopman said he would consider thinking differently if the homeless “added the smallest iota of value.” Another industry figure, Justin Keller, wrote an open letter to the mayor on his personal website that advocated social cleansing as a viable solution. “Somehow, during Super Bowl, almost all of the homeless and riff raff seem to up and vanish. I’m willing to bet that was not a coincidence. Money and political pressure can make change.” This sense of entitlement is neatly distilled in Jarrett Kobek’s novel I hate the Internet, a viciously funny (if self-satisfied) critique of the tech sector’s social, cultural and economic primacy. “Gentrification,” he writes, “is what happened to a city when people with an excess of capital wanted to produce more capital while not attributing any value to labor.”

Later that year, three prominent tech investors bankrolled a measure to eradicate tents from the city’s sidewalks. The proposed law, known as Proposition Q, would grant the city the power to clear street encampments if shelter beds were available for the evicted. One told The Guardian that the 24-hour eviction notice would serve as an incentive to find housing — assuming, of course, that accommodation would be available in the first place. Mark Farrell, a Democrat and supporter of Proposition Q, framed the proposed law as an act of compassion: “Tent encampments are unhealthy and unsafe for the individuals residing in them and for our residents and businesses,” he wrote in an op-ed. At the November ballot, San Franciscans agreed in part, with a majority voting yes on Proposition Q. But the gesture turned out to be symbolic, as additional funding for shelters and aid — put forward in propositions J and K — returned mixed results, with a crucial plank of funding overwhelmingly rejected by voters. The nature of politics is performative, and it’s always easier to signal intent than it is to act on it.

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A kind of radical progressivism has always been a part of San Francisco’s ethos, but the definition of progress is increasingly slippery: it has become an ideal measured solely by financial metrics rather than social or political ones. The Millennium Tower, for instance, promises a “new way of living,” but what it proposes is not new at all: it promises exclusivity without intimacy, proximity but not community. It exudes the kind of radical self-reliance championed by technolibertarians — in thrall to the market, individual freedoms, and little else, despite all the rhetorical window-dressing.

There seems to be a view of progress that defines it not as an ideological ethos, but as logical and inevitable outcome of ‘disruption’ and market upheaval. An overarching fetish for newness induces a kind of cultural amnesia, framing historical and cultural memory as an encumbrance that must be overthrown. This sentiment feels especially acute in the tech industry, where obsolescence is an ever-present threat. It presents the past as a burden to be shed; individuals, industries, and cities must find new ways to sell themselves. When people cling to city’s seductive self-mythology as a home for eccentrics, dissidents, activists, artists, and those on the margins, it sounds, increasingly, like San Francisco’s alternate reality. But there’s only false comfort in reheated nostalgia. I wonder if they’ve seen the Salesforce Tower.