Ten years ago, my mother and I decided to retrace part of the route between California’s historic Spanish missions to see how it looked today. So we set off on foot from the late-18th century Mission Dolores in San Francisco, the city where I grew up, and walked to Mission Santa Clara. It took three days – just as it would have in the missionary days. But now, instead of wild oaks and stone outcroppings, the so-called El Camino Real (or King’s Highway) took us past three days of back-to-back strip malls.
These stucco complexes in every shade of beige lined up behind paved car parks – the human corollary to the suburban environment was that, despite the region’s consistently beautiful, temperate weather, we saw no one else on foot. The strip malls themselves were almost all half-empty; red For Rent signs dotted the landscape instead of poppies, and you couldn’t help thinking what folly it was to have built these places at all.
This depressing scenario – which is so pervasive in California’s ever-expanding suburbs that, after a day or two there, no alternative even seems possible – was what confronted Italian architect Renzo Piano and his team of RPBW when they agreed to take on the unusual project of building a new shopping centre in San Ramon, about 40 kilometres east of San Francisco.
“The big deal was this question – what’s negative about suburbia?” says Antonio Belvedere, the architect who spearheaded the project. “Suburbia is not bad living, it is a choice you make – you are not forced. But what is the negative portion of that?”
To find out, Belvedere toured the East Bay region in 2013. There, he discovered something about the American suburban dream, predicated on the desire for space – a private house, a private yard, and so on – when it comes to public areas like shopping malls. “You may have too much space,” he says. “So you don’t care about the economy of space.”
In an urban downtown, stores line an inviting street. But with a shopping mall it is different. “The street is inside. All the dirt – when I say dirt, I mean the garbage, the electricity, the loading docks – is outside. Because there is space for it.” Driving up to a suburban shopping mall is always depressing in part because of this perimeter of “dirt” that must be crossed. “You see the outside when you drive in,” he says.
“In 2013 I made a tour of the region – Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Dublin – and this was constant,” says Belvedere. “Then Renzo came, and we had this conversation. His idea was not to concentrate all the value in the belly of the animal.”
As the Italian team began working with the Mehran family, who have owned the land for three generations – the area that is now the mall used to be a pear orchard – they ran up against the typical suburban-mall planning process that is behind surburbia’s almost uniformly soulless shopping structures. “There are a lot of retail consultants out there,” says Belvedere. “They can tell you what to do – put the trash here, put the building here; you don’t even need an architect.”
For this project, the architects wanted to create a space that is also inviting on approach. To accomplish this, they had to push back against the prevailing wisdom about the kinds of conveniences retailers expect from suburban malls. “We kept saying, ‘what would you do in a downtown? Would you need a huge delivery track? Would you put the trash compactor outside on the street?’”
“It is not pleasant to walk beside the trash compactor,” he adds.
Luckily, they had the Mehran family, who had contacted them in the first place, on their side. “It was a complicated relationship in the beginning,” says Belvedere. “We were pushing and challenging – ‘If you want to do something different, forget these cookie-cutter ideas.’” The Mehrans took a leap of faith, and dismissed consultants who could not adjust to the Italians’ ideas. “I can’t tell you how many consultants we went through,” says Belvedere.
Finally, Piano’s team was able to create a new form for the mall – one that has arcades not only lining the structure’s piazza-like interior, but arcades all along its exterior as well. Here, in what is a fairly radical concept, people are tacitly invited to walk along the exterior perimeter. “We wanted to create an outside that talks to suburbia, that doesn’t turn its back to it,” says Belvedere.
The team devoted a lot of time to thinking about the visitor experience of the building on approach – “not in terms of shopping,” adds Belvedere quickly, but in terms of the physical building. “What makes you feel good? It’s the human scale, not something that repulses you but embraces you – a space that brings big suburban scale into human scale.”
While there is some outdoor car parking, most of the parking is on the top floor – in the architects’ vision, the building is capable of “digesting” the cars. Walking is encouraged. “If you walk through the arcades, altogether it’s one mile. This starts to be a piece of experience that happens in suburbia,” says Belvedere.
When the City Center Bishop Ranch opened in November, one of San Francisco’s best restaurants – the iconic Slanted Door – opened its second branch there. They were drawn by the architecture – and the Mehrans hope other retailers will overlook the limitations on convenience that a human-oriented design necessarily imposes on the suburban landscape. “Our premise was that if we overpower retailers with great architecture and a sense of place, then they will say, ‘OK, we can deal with this, that or the other thing,’” explains Alexander Mehran, whose grandfather bought the land after immigrating from Iran. Initially, he hoped to farm pistachios and other Iranian delicacies in his new homeland. But over the decades, as California’s population boomed, he developed part of the land into a successful office park.
It’s hard to overstate how visionary the Mehrans’ decision to call in a star architect for this most pedestrian of structures was. “When the plans for City Center Bishop Ranch were announced in 2014, the notion of revered Italian architect Renzo Piano designing a shopping centre in a Contra Costa County office park seemed far-fetched, even absurd,” writes John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. “But the complex itself is a meticulous pleasure, an open-air enclave that offers star architecture for the masses but also has lessons for suburban projects lacking the big-name budget or cachet.”
For Belvedere, who insisted on putting up a clock in the structure’s centre – a nod to the origins of the piazza – despite the fact that today people get the time from their smartphones, the hope is that the building will help to stimulate a sense of civic life. “To design a little piece of the city in suburbia – that was our miracle, to try to accomplish.”
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