Archive for Architecture

Ideas for Rainy Day Walks

Earlier this year I had a few things to say about wet weather, but now that it rained last week and it is raining again on and off this week, I thought I’d share a few more thoughts. First of all, I had to laugh reading my statement “I enjoy walking in a mist or light rain, but I do try to plan walks so that I do not get caught in a downpour” because Friday afternoon found me walking for 45 minutes in the heaviest period of rain of the day. My shoes were full of water by the end, and the rest of my clothing was pretty soaked as well. It had such a long time since it had rained that I forgot that that shoes I was wearing and the tiny umbrella I was carrying were inappropriate for the weather.

Despite getting drenched, I was thinking about how walking in wet weather opens up the opportunity for some unique observations. In terms of looking at architecture, this is when I spend a great deal of time looking at roofs, gutters, awnings, and how houses are protected from the elements. I’ve been particularly surprised by the number of architecturally interesting downspouts, many of which are designed from copper. Local Ecologist talked about rain barrels in a post awhile ago, which are used to collect roof water runoff for watering and other uses. So far, I have not spotted any rain barrels in my walks, but I imagine that this is because most are located at the back of residences. I have spotted several nice-looking rain chains, which are chains attached to a roof to collect water in a pot, basin, or drainage system. An interesting exercise, especially in the hills, is to look for drains that travel under the sidewalk and to the storm drains and then follow the path the water takes from the house to the street.

Observing what happens to water on the street is easy as a walker because (unless you are wearing galoshes) you are probably watching for the places where the water floods at curbs and street crossings! Puddles, potholes, sand bags and other flooding prevention, are all things to look out for during or after a rain. An interesting bit of environmental history that I learned from Richard Walker’s The Country in the City (history of the conversation of the Bay Area’s greenbelt) is that the idea of storm drain stencils originated in Berkeley. If you look down at the drains in Berkeley, you’ve probably notice the bright “No Dumping, Drains to Bay” stencils; this stenciling idea has been adopted by many cities to help remind people not to dump toxic materials into the drainage system that may connect to a bay, river, or ocean depending on where you live.

If you enjoy people-watching, a rainy day is a good opportunity for this activity — rain-gear, umbrellas, reactions to rain, etc. Berkeley and the Bay Area can get a fair amount of rain or not much at all, depending on the year. I don’t see nearly as many people unfazed by the rain as I have on visits to rainy cities such as Portland (Oregon) and Seattle, nor as many people who venture out in the wet weather without an umbrella. And, although I have seen plenty of people braving the rain on bicycles with fenders, I often see the bikes locked up without plastic bags or covers over the seats. I am always on the lookout for other people who seem to be enjoying the rain. Getting a little wet seems way more appealing to me than be in a car in rainy weather or being stuck inside all day, and a warm beverage afterwards (or carried along in a thermos) makes the experience even more satisfying. I am hopeful that more people will get out for walks when it is raining; that is why I made sure to smile and indicate that to others that I was having a good time even as I sloshed along the pavement on Friday.


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Photo by Joe Reifer

In most places I’ve walked, one of the elements of homes that I usually find least interesting is the garages, primarily because modern suburban garage designs seem to be limited to a few styles. One of the first things I learned about garages in Berkeley was that many of them are falling apart. Some are slightly dilapidated, while others look like they are very close to falling apart completely. This is not surprising with the number of older homes in Berkeley, and with the relatively expensive cost of renovating or re-building a garage.

Some garages are attached to homes, and many others are separate and located down a long driveway that runs along the side of the house. Most are “one-car” garages (the quotes because most modern cars don’t fit in the garages at all), though I have seen a couple of two-car garages here and there. I have not seen any of the three-car garages that can be found in some suburbs. Because most garages here do not to have automatic doors, and also because many cars are parked in driveways rather than in the tiny garages, you do see most people when they are coming and going. In my dreams, of course, most people would be leaving their house on foot or bicycle, but at least it is not as extreme as the neighborhoods where you never seen anyone because they enter their cars in the garage, open the automatic door, and drive off — all without stepping outside.

Last weekend I was down on the Peninsula, and spent some time walking around Palo Alto. I noticed a few instances where circular driveways had been installed in small front yards on quiet streets, which didn’t make sense to me at all. I had to chuckle a bit when I noticed one circular driveway where a car had pulled in and parked on each end of the driveway — defeating its purpose because one of the cars would have to back out anyway.

Every once in awhile, I spot a garage door in Berkeley with an interesting geometric pattern, like the one pictured above. I had walked by the garage door shown below on many occasions, but had not noticed the X’s. A couple of weeks ago, coming at it from across the street, it was easier to spot. It’s always nice to have a reminder to keep looking and looking again and again — and then you still probably haven’t seen everything.

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Front Doors & Entries

In terms of architectural elements of houses in Berkeley, I’ve talked a little about front porches, windows and what can be see through them, and fences and gates. Lately, for some reason, I have been noticing interesting and creative doors and entrances. Some have artistic touches, like this one:

and this one (note the eyes staring out from the porch steps):

Security gates that cover the front porch or door almost always look bad despite their utility. This one just made me smile, though. Despite the big iron gate, the “guard cat” adds a light touch to the entrance:

I’m always looking to see how people handle “no soliciting” signs. Below is a typical example, and in this case I think the combination of the sign and the modern door and entry elements make it look like an entrance to a medical office rather than a home. The funniest sign I’ve seen is “If you don’t know me, don’t knock” (hand-painted on a piece of wood, sort of like those painted and carved signs that are common in some suburban areas that proclaim the home’s owners, e.g., “John & Jane Jones”). The best sign wording that I think fits with many of the older architectural styles in Berkeley is “No Peddlers or Agents.” Still to come… garage doors!

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A Tour of Claremont

At this point in my walk I am mostly working on completing small pieces of larger neighborhoods in Berkeley, but one I had barely walked until last week was the southeast corner of Berkeley to the east of Claremont Avenue. This area near the Claremont Hotel is primarily residential, with a few small but popular restaurants and shops on Claremont Avenue and on Domingo near Ashby. I was lucky to get a grand tour of the neighborhood by Berkeley Path Wanderers President Sandy Friedland. Let me start my discussion of this walk by saying that I thought I was the most enthusiastic walker of Berkeley until this walk with Sandy. There is good reason why Sandy is president of the Path Wanderers: she is incredibly knowledgeable about paths, architecture, neighborhoods, and the people who live in them. And she has obviously spend many hours walking and observing everything around her.

There is much to say about this small neighborhood, so expect a couple of more posts about Claremont in the future. One of my impressions of this area from previous glimpses was that it was somewhat different architecturally than the rest of Berkeley. Many of the houses are larger, and the architectural styles vary greatly from house to house. Some areas had a feel of some of the grander San Francisco neighborhoods. As it turns out, this area was built up after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire to draw in businessmen and other well-to-do San Francisco residents who wanted something different than bungalows found elsewhere in Berkeley. While most of the homes are large, there are some smaller and more modest homes tucked in between them. Despite the presence of multi-million dollar homes, the residents of the neighborhood who were out and about were very friendly and seemed down-to-earth. This area has a high concentration of stairways and pathways leading through and alongside homes, and the homeowners have made the paths welcoming to walkers.

It is difficult to take in everything in this neighborhood at once, particularly because of all of the interesting architectural details and the elaborate gardens. Many of the gardens here look to be straight out of a landscape design book or garden magazine, but many also have whimsical touches. I think my favorite part of walking this area, though, is the ability to follow parts of the Claremont/Harwood Creek, which runs above ground in many places here. Where the creek runs through properties, one can see bridges and other crossings, garages built over the creek and many other interesting methods of incorporating running water with architecture. John Muir School is next to the creekbed where it crosses the Oakridge Path and Tunnel Road, and a student restoration project can be viewed in this area.

Next up to read on my pile of books to read is Michael Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon is one of several famous residents in the Claremont/Elmwood area, and you can get a small glimpse of some of his family’s local spots in this 2003 article. Of particular note is the Star Grocery, where you can still buy groceries on account, and which Chabon also refers to in his 2004 Ode to Berkeley.

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Quonsets and Berkeley’s Role in Wars

I’ve always been fascinated by Quonset huts, but hadn’t known much about their history until finding a book about them a couple of years ago, Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age. These prefab structures were used as temporary shelters during World War II, and then were used for other industrial, commercial, and residential purposes after the war. They can still be found here and there, and I was pleased to run across one in West Berkeley, at the end of Folger street. I looked up the building in Discovering West Berkeley, which noted that it was built in 1946, U.S. Navy. It looks like other nearby buildings were the site of manufacturing that supported the Richmond shipyards during WW II. There’s quite a bit of history to be found about Richmond and the war, including exhibits at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II National Historical Park (an easy car-free outing from Berkeley — take a bike over the Berkeley I-80 bicycle bridge and ride north on the Bay Trail path to the park, which just one small hill at the racetrack). But what about Berkeley? Because of Berkeley’s association with the peace movement, the city’s role in wars isn’t something everyone thinks about. However, there is plenty of military history here. Berkeley, A City in History includes a good summary of World War II and beyond, and the December 2006 issue of the Berkeley Historical Society newsletter has an article about and photos of Camp Ashby, a U.S. Army training camp for black soldiers during World War II.

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Hidden Gems of Berkeley

Instead of walking every street Berkeley, I could have just as easily decided to cycle every street. Several factors make walking a better choice for this project in Berkeley: its small size, the steep streets of the Berkeley hills (fine if you are just riding, but stopping and starting several times on a hill is not much fun), the many paths and stairways that need to be navigated on foot, etc. In the flatlands of Berkeley, though, going by bicycle is a great way to see points of interest around town. This Sunday, May 20 (10 am to 2 pm) is a good chance to do just this. Environmental planner John Steere is leading the fifth Hidden Gems of Berkeley [note: PDF file] bike ride exploring “quirky architecture, lovely gardens, excellence in urban design, and an eclectic collection of historical, natural, and unusual features.”

Small section of the Hidden Gems map, designed by John Coveney

This year’s ride starts at Halcyon Commons, and explores “hidden gems” in South Berkeley and Elmwood. You’ll get to hear from guest guides/historians and see the fish house, the TV house, front yard sculptures, vegetable gardens, and many other interesting sights. The ride is free, and the lovely Hidden Gems map can be purchased for a small fee that day.

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Front Porches

I had fully intended to continue Signs of Spring as a short series. Maybe I will get a chance, but right now it feels like summer. However, my walks over the past few days of warmer temperatures have shed some new light on a question I have been pondering over the past few months: why don’t I see more people sitting out in front of their houses on their porches or stoops, and what sorts of conditions would need to occur for this to happen more often? I had wondered upon starting this walking project if I would talk to many people who lived in the homes on all of the streets of Berkeley that I was walking. I have had a few conversations, but not as many as I had expected. Ironically, the last time was early on a weekday morning with a woman who was examining the smashed windshield of her car and was stressed about how she was going to get the window fixed, make it to work, find a safer parking spot for her car, etc. We had a good conversation, but it felt slightly odd reassuring someone about a car headache!

In any case, early in the Berkeley walk I found myself sometimes having an idealistic daydream about taking years to finish the walk because I couldn’t make it down one street without having several interesting conversations with the people who lived there. Of course, I knew this really wouldn’t be the case, but I did start to wonder why I could sometimes have walks in residential areas where I barely saw anyone outside their house. My first thought was that long work hours and long commutes meant that many people were not home that often. This could be true in some cases, but Berkeley also has lots of students, people who work at home or not at all, and other alternatives to typical work patterns. Commercial districts are busy at all hours, and streets are rarely empty of cars. And then on weekends, when I do much of my walking, it’s not often that I see someone reading a newspaper or a book on the porch.

Another theory, and a valid one I think, is that many Berkeley houses have small porches. Porches here, for the most part, are not the kind that you might find in other parts of the country that circle the house or are large enough for a porch swing or other seating. Many houses have small chairs on the porch, but not ones that seem comfortable for long sittings; they are more likely used to remove muddy shoes or set down packages before entering the front door. I have also considered the idea, run into the ground in the media, that we are becoming more and more internal, that we spend more time in front of the TV set and the computer and less time outside and socializing with our neighbors. I don’t want to spend too much time on this — most of you have heard or read about this too many times — and I also can’t say for sure whether it is true or not.

All theories aside, what circumstances might cause people to sit on their porch or stoop? I wasn’t sure until I started noticing a pattern of people sitting outside with their cell phones. Whether it’s to get better reception or to gain a bit of privacy from the rest of the household, the porch seems to be a favorite spot for chatting on the mobile phone. Obviously this is completely different than sitting on the porch and talking with people as they pass by; I have not once had anyone look up from their conversation and wave or smile. But perhaps some people will talk to a neighbor after they are done on the phone. One amusing thought I had, as someone who tends to question statistics, is a survey result saying that “people spend x% more time on their porches these days” (with the increase due not to more socializing but the sharp rise in cell phone use).

This week, however, temperatures have been higher that usual for this time of year. Suddenly I have seen all sorts of people outside: kids playing in the sprinklers, people reading books on the stoop, others socializing. Many of the houses here were built without much insulation, and even those who have decent insulation and some fans are not accustomed to high temperatures. Heat waves in an area with normally mild temperatures can bring people out and socializing with neighbors and passers-by. On one short walk to the grocery store I passed a man yelling across the street to offer a neighbor a cold beer, and then talked to some children who were picking strawberries from their front-yard garden.

I hope by the end of this walk to have some other thoughts to share about the lack of porch-sitters, and what might change the situation. As usual, any opinions are welcome!

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