DESIGN: FIRE WORKS OVER SAN FRANCISCO

In 1991 residents of the Oakland Hills watched their houses turn to ashes. But instead of abandoning the neighbourhood, many returned to build the homes of their dreams. Peter Lloyd reports
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The Independent Culture
The fire in the hills above Oakland, to the east of San Francisco, began on 20 October 1991. When these hills were uninhabited, fires during the autumn season were regarded as part of a natural cycle of regeneration. Their presence, in the now populated hills, is no longer considered benign. Warm temperatures, high winds and five years of drought combined to make the autumn of 1991 particularly dangerous. The fire, which started in an uninhabited area, soon established itself and spread to cover 1,800 acres. By the time it had been extinguished, it had destroyed nearly 3,000 houses, killed 22 people and injured 148. The blaze became so fierce that walls of flame, 100ft high, swept across the hillsides, and residents had to outrun the fire to survive. In the aftermath bodies were found in cars that had not been fast enough to escape the destruction.

The survivors lost everything. For days news crews filmed shocked residents picking through the ruins, searching for any small reminder of their lives before the fire, dumbfounded at the totality of their loss. Eighteen hundred houses and 900 apartments were destroyed. Five thousand people were left homeless. The damage was estimated at $2 billion.

The Oakland Hills appear to have offered enough compensation for most of their inhabitants to take a second chance, however, and after the fire the area soon became a huge building site. How would this sector of largely white, middle-class America choose to express its tastes, values and aspirations through that most American of building forms, the single-family home? How would the searing experience of devastation affect the landscape that grew up after it? Would complacency or anxiety dominate?

The architects of the new homes could design without neighbouring buildings to consider, without trees to work around, with none of the usual limitations to struggle against, except the stringencies of the building codes. What they did have was a bare site, a glorious location, and the opportunity to develop a programme in close collaboration with their clients. In fact, while the rebuilding of the fire zone has given rise to some innovative and thoughtful architecture, it also goes some way towards showing what can go wrong when people get what they want. Traditional models, re-used without any sense of irony, abound, testimony to overwhelming cultural and technological conservatism.

Too many of the houses, financed by insurance payments, have bulked up grotesquely like body builders. Square footage has become paramount and modest homes have swollen into grand houses, too close to their lot lines and to their neighbour's: too much house and not enough garden.

Timber siding and shingles are now things of the past and the new structures of the hills are anchored by substantial concrete caissons, inviolable battleships of cement-board and steel. But these are only sensible precautions against fire and earthquake, just as combustible trees such as eucalyptus have been replaced by fire-retardant plants such as agave.

The last two decades have not been kind to California. A string of natural disasters - including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that killed 63 people in San Francisco and the devastating 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles - has been paralleled by a series of political and racial infernos, most famously the 1992 LA riots that followed the televising of the home video of policemen beating Rodney King. The recent social upheavals are given expression in the fortress-like quality of many of the new homes; the tension between the desires - to keep out intruders and to open living spaces to the climate and the views - are apparent.

For the Hills' inhabitants security is a prime consideration, not unusual in largely white, suburban American enclaves. More fundamentally, the response to the dangers already experienced and to the potential troubles ahead, whether natural, social or economic, has been to build on tradition, and almost any tradition with a pitched roof will do.

But a few enlightened homeowners have commissioned architects whose work is unashamedly modern. (It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that the clients for the modern houses featured here have careers or interests in the visual arts.)

Each of the houses shares a concern for creating controlled spaces in which a programme for living is expressed with extreme clarity. These houses celebrate the pleasures of light and space and display frankly their structure and materials. In contrast to many of the new houses in the hills above San Francisco, these buildings employ a language of some delicacy, using screens, reflective materials and structure to break up their bulk. These houses are risky: even seen from a distance, they assert their individuality. Yet they are also purposeful, with a simplicity learnt from the great tradition - as real as the traditions of Spanish Colonial or Tudorbethan eclecticism - of modernism. Where so many of the new houses in the hills content themselves with reproducing a vocabulary from the past in an unoriginal manner, the buildings featured here have extended the principles of modernism to produce an architecture appropriate to West Coast life at the end of the 20th century.

Some of them could be seen as following in the tradition of the Southern Californian Case Study Houses - a series of experimental designs commissioned in the Fifties by John Entenza, owner and editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. The brief was to investigate ways of creating adventurous but inexpensive mass housing suitable for the post-war US, but what the programme actually gave rise to was a number of imaginatively designed one-off homes by architects including Richard Neutra, Ray and Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, 23 of which were actually built. Whatever the influences on the new Oakland Hills houses, a phoenix has undoubtedly risen from the ashes.

! Words and pictures from 'San Francisco Houses: After the Fire' by Peter Lloyd with photographs by Keith Collie, published by Ellipsis priced pounds 6.95. For stockist information contact Ellipsis on 0171 739 3157.

BECKER HOUSE

Designed by Jim Jennings Arkhitekture this house (above) occupies a steeply sloping site and commands stunning views. It is divided into two volumes; the larger one houses the living spaces for the clients, and the smaller one contains a studio, a garage and rooms for two university-aged children. The volumes are differentiated externally by the use of cladding: cement board for the larger one (above left) and corrugated metal for the smaller one. They are linked by a large open deck (above middle). The lower floor (above right) is open to the landscape and flooded with light

XYZ HOUSE

The clients for this house are collectors of American art and furniture. They wanted a modernist house protected at the street side but open to the outdoors, and chose Philip Banta and Associates Architecture to deal with their narrow, steep site. A four-storey glazed box with brutal earthquake bracing strapped to the facade (right) resulted. The decks and roof overhang offering shade; the double-height living-room (far right) and stair tower offer natural ventilation; and the concrete provides thermal mass for passive solar heating

COTTEN HOUSE

ACE Architects' Cotten House (left), was designed for an enthusiastic horn player. It was inspired by the remains of a saxophone found in the ruins of the fire-destroyed house

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