Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jacques Tati's dystopia in Mission Bay

Remember Play Time? That's the really disturbing Jacques Tati film where Monsieur Hulot tries to have a sociable, comfortable time in the city, but he simply doesn't belong there, and neither does anyone else. Tati's everyman from small-town France and a group of American culture tourists find themselves equally lost in a brutalist-modern Paris of glass and concrete. It's a place of utter exposure and standardization -- anti-private, anti-cozy -- a realm predicted by Kafka and Zamiatin. The film is intentionally awkward, thought-provoking, and, I thought, an exaggeration.

But on Wednesday I went walking with my baby down beside the San Francisco Bay, and in the new Mission Bay university/medical/industrial/redevelopment campus, we were in a world frighteningly close to the world of Play Time -- a world as remote from old waterfront San Francisco as Tati's setting is from the confected literary Fifth Arrondissement of Midnight in Paris.

In the building shown here, bedrooms in people's apartments (condos?) were fully on display to the road and sidewalk but it hardly mattered from the point of view of privacy because we were just about the only pedestrians.

We knew we'd seen something just like it before. We had, thanks to Tati. Compare this incredibly similar image of domestic interiors under glass in Play Time.

Mission Bay is in large part a "brownfield" development, meaning the new projects paved over a lot of serious toxics. Maybe that need to contain and cover the earth accounts for some of the desolate feeling.

It looks a lot like one of the European waterfront urban renewal projects. Chunks of ex-industrial Lyon look that way, for example.

It's especially far too much like a monstrous apartment development in Zaragoza where Joel and I got stuck driving in circles for something like an hour looking for the highway to Barcelona in 2004. At the time we were making a bleary recovery from several days of violent food poisoning. In my memory the headache, the nausea, and the sense of depletion from inability to retain solid food are all mixed up with the desolation of the empty streets in the half-built mazes of residential blocks and the nightmare sense that we might never escape to a major road out of town. There would be an apparent road out, and it would end in a construction barrier or a detour sign or a one-way street that would become a bollarded pedestrian walkway paved in tastefully tinted concrete blocks and we'd have to turn around yet again.

It all blurs together... And the Mission Bay apartment blocks bring it all back.

I hope someday Mission Bay becomes a neighborhood on a human scale. It's difficult to imagine how that might happen. Coffee carts? Food trucks? Temporary buildings? Lean-tos? Any means of building human-scaled ground-level life around the concrete towers comes across as either impractical, period, or only hypothetically possible if the complex were to become an otherwise dysfunctional shantytown kind of place, which seems unlikely. Mission Bay is probably good and sentenced to twenty years or more of sterility. Yeah, I know, blah blah, housing units, re-use, amenities for "underserved residents," by which I guess they mean the benighted likes of us SoMa neighbors... Sorry, it still brings back that washed-out sick-headache Zaragoza feeling, it still gets me looking around for a route either out of town or back to something recognizable as town.

Which raises a question: when designers get a big space to develop from scratch and a big supply of modern materials to do it with, does the temptation to grandiosity always defeat the need to make the place livable?

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