San Francisco undergrads

After they graduate, most of our students head off to the big West Coast cities to start their careers – Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are their most common destinations. About 20 years ago, I remember a student telling me how excited she was to graduate and move to San Francisco, and I thought, I’ve been in Eugene longer than her – why don’t I get to graduate and move to San Francisco? It is such a great town to live in as a young adult that I was jealous of them, having never lived there myself. But even though I’ve stayed in Eugene, I have about a 20-year backlog of former students living in the Bay Area, so we at least got to experience life there vicariously by seeing some of them.

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Katharine Dwyer and Chris Gebhardt both graduated from the UO three years ago. Katharine came from Oakland, and has now returned to her hometown, while Chris came from Colorado, and used his stint at the UO in the way that many of those from landlocked states do, to jump-start a more coastal lifestyle. I got to know both of them when they were in my Housing the 99% studio in 2012, where Katharine’s project focussed on how unit sizes could be shrunk back down to reasonable levels for all household types (an excellent exercise for someone about to move back to the Bay Area), and Chris focussed on how the income streams and cash flows could work within a block of housing that mirrored our national economic and demographic mix. They both exemplified the type of smart, engaged, and wide-ranging undergraduates we sometimes take for granted around here. Chris was also one of my main informants on interesting things out there in the culture – he was the one who first exposed me to XKCD, and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. (I think I paid him back with Babymetal.)

Katharine and Chris both seem gainfully and happily employed – Katharine as a job captain at the Huntsman Architectural Group (she regaled us with a story about her exposure to urban rooftop beekeeping earlier in the day), and Chris as a designer at Ankron Moisan’s new San Francisco office (with which his preceding firm just merged), continuing his interest in housing. It is always an adjustment for me to realize that people I still think of as college students now actually have a substantial amount of professional experience, and I was struck by how much they’ve done and how clearly they understand the world of practice.

Staying in touch with former students through Facebook has turned out to be a good thing for an old guy trying to vicariously live in San Francisco. I get to see signs that Katharine is doing all those fun young professional lifestyle things around the region, and that Chris spends a lot of time racing on sailboats out in the Bay. It is also clear is how nice it is that they arrived in the city with a pre-existing cohort of friends that all moved down from the UO, and that those really strong architecture school friendships can continue into the next phase of their lives.

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Javier Ruiz is another San Francisco native who returned to the city after graduating from the UO in 2009. Javier was in my housing thesis studio that year, where he proposed a block of high-density rowhouse types in downtown Eugene, a project of remarkable complexity and context-specific adaptation. Javier was another one of those students with whom it was often difficult to stay on topic – he just knew about too many other interesting things beyond architecture, and always had something very amusing to say about them. He was restrained and quiet on the surface, but there was always a lot going on under that surface.

After years working on institutional projects, Javier has recently begun work with Gunkel Architecture, where he is getting back into residential work, illustrating the timeless irony of young architects in major cities doing residential projects that they could never afford to live in. (When I was l working in New York, and a client complained that the master bedroom in a unit was too small, I drew a rectangle in one corner of it. He asked, what’s that, and I answered, my apartment.) Javier has recently suffered the fate of many native San Franciscans, forced out of their hometown by rising real estate prices. His reaction on Facebook was classic Javier:

Okay, I surrender, moving to Berkeley. But when I return across the narrow bay it will be with dragons and a goddamned army, and no quantity of gadgetry, web design, crossfit, crowdsourcing, VC, tasting menus, queues, maker spaces, or general purpose artisanal bullshit will save you. Peace! (For a limited time only.)

A new job and residence were not enough disruption for Javier last year – he also got married – hitting the trifecta of fundamental life changes. Photos of their wedding at the San Francisco City Hall just appeared on Facebook one day, the first time I’ve seen pictures of a straight couple getting married there in years.

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Greta and I instigated a Facebook-based get-together with these former students, and ended up at an Indian restaurant south of Market that Javier knew about. We dragged Dan along with us, which amplified one of my favorite aspects of these crowd-sourced gatherings – strange juxtapositions of friends from very different stages of my life. It’s always fun to mix up different cohorts of our graduates – I assume that they know each other within a geographic region, but they usually don’t. Dan added another level of complexity to the relationship mix, and I enjoyed seeing other connections emerge; whereas Dan may be the primary amusing Facebook commenter of his generation, I have found Javier to be the rising star of his. His posts offer wry insights into life in the Bay Area, politics, design, and broader currents in our culture. I think he should give up architecture and get his own YouTube channel.

We tried to schedule another Facebook gathering in the East Bay, but the logistics just got too complicated for getting together with Lisa Leal, Matt Cunha-Rigby and Olivia Asuncion, among others; there are entirely too many people to see in the Bay Area, and we would need a few weeks to cover them all. But having touched base with students from three and seven years earlier, we were later able to see what an older generation of former students have been doing with their lives for the past 20 years.

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Randy Wiederhold and Christine Lehto both graduated from the UO in 1995. Randy was from Palo Alto and Christine was from a small town on the Columbia River. They were members of a great undergraduate class which included Roberto Cipriano, among many offbeat and accomplished others. Randy was in my second year studio, and even at that early stage it was obvious that his brain worked at lightning speed, and with remarkable rigor. While most young undergraduates focus on making a big formal gesture, Randy saw that the logic of the building fabric and systems could help determine the order of the architecture, and not simply be used to implement a driving metaphor.

After college Christine and Randy worked in Portland for a while, then moved to the Bay Area so Randy could get an engineering degree at Stanford. They both continued their careers, with Randy working at a number of notable firms before starting his own practice; Christine has now been working at Gensler for nine years. We had some interesting discussions about the state of the profession – they’ve worked in a broad range of practices, from sole practitioner to a large, multi-city corporate giant, and once again I learned a lot from thoughtful former students, who really understand more about where things are going than I do.

Over the years on Facebook I’ve seen pictures of their two kids growing up, and we were looking forward to meeting them in person. Anni immediately got added to Greta’s ever-growing list of cool nerdy girls she’s met on this trip, whereas Eli and Greta had a harder time comprehending each other, and it took Eli a while to realize that Greta was a girl. We met up with them all at the DeYoung Museum, where a friend of theirs was the artist in residence producing amazing giant paper flowers,

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and at one point the kids devolved into parallel play in what seemed to be some of their dominant activities – Greta writing, Anni drawing, and Eli zoning out.dscf1506

We wandered over to their house in the Richmond, and got to see the richness of how they live, both at the private and neighborhood scales. Christine and Randy bought a small multi-family building (back when doing such a thing was a stretch but not unimaginable), and have figured out how to make a go of urban family living through smarts, sweat equity and adaptability. The building has four units over a ground floor of service and garage. That’s their famous VW van parked in front, used for family camping excursions.

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Christine and Randy lived in one unit as they renovated the building, making a fantastic home for themselves at the rear of the main floor, and expanding that unit down to the ground floor, with access to the rear garden. As their family and needs grew, the building gave them the flexibility to expand, even as the rental units provided income, and they’ve recently taken over the garage space as a room for all the kids’ activities.

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Their main space is open and light, with the kitchen, dining and living areas all connected. The design is elegant and simple, and works as the armature for all the things that matter in their lives – the space was full of art, music, books, and food. As they explained their history of buying, renovating, maintaining and changing the building over time, I was really impressed. I often tell my students that as architects don’t make a lot of money, if they want to live in a certain way or place, they’ll have to achieve that by being smarter and thinking unconventionally. If you just accept what the market has to offer, you’ll end up in a conventional apartment that has none of the qualities that matter to you. In one of the toughest housing markets I the country, Christine and Randy came up with a strategy that worked physically and financially, a place for their family to thrive.

We walked around the neighborhood, and saw how embedded they were in the community. They kept stopping to chat with friends. We passed many great-looking little restaurants, and ended up at a Korean barbecue place. After dinner we spent some time at the amazing independent bookstore near their house. Greta was in awe as she saw that this kind of living was possible in a big city, where a kid could walk to restaurants, museums, parks and especially, a bookstore.

A major goal of this trip has been to expose Greta to a wide range of ways people live in this country, so meeting up with these friends in San Francisco was an eye-opener. Greta’s not sure where she wants to live in the future, but she’s now clear about one criterion – it has to be a place where a car isn’t needed to conduct her day-to-day life. As for me, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to live in San Francisco, but thanks to our former students who stay in touch, I have been getting a good sense of what that life could be like, as I watch them proceed through all the stages of grown-up architect life.

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One thought on “San Francisco undergrads

  1. Jerry Finrow

    Great segment, one of the very best things about teaching at the UO is that all your students must leave after they get their degree which means you have them scattered all over the place giving you a wonderful network. Most UW grads come here from where ever and never leave, a different kind of life style.

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