March 08, 2021

A Durational Interim

PROXY Fall Film Festival, 2019: The Last Black Man In San Francisco, October 11, 2019. Photo: Douglas Burnham

Amid the hum of urban life on a warm fall evening, a large crowd gathered on a sea of picnic blankets spread across an asphalt plaza. In the middle of Hayes Valley, a neighborhood known for its shops and restaurants, this cross section of San Franciscans had come to celebrate a free showing of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The plaza, designed to function by night as a walk-in movie theater, was filled beyond capacity — well over five hundred people — with many more spilling into the adjacent park. Anticipation filled the air as the screenwriter, director, and lead actors introduced their film to the hometown audience, sharing how their city had changed, and how their love for San Francisco and this very neighborhood was expressed in the melancholy and loss that permeate the film. Sadly, the story of San Francisco is that of many US cities: a long history of redlining and exclusion, and a more recent one of gentrification and displacement of Black and brown communities. Though burdened with this history, the night was nonetheless glorious, grounded in shared experience and emotion for filmmakers and audience alike as they told and received a poignant tale about their city, in their city.

PROXY, 2016. Photo: Christopher Woodcock

We 1 call this place PROXY: created as a placeholder for more permanent development of two city-owned vacant lots, the project just passed its tenth year of existence — far surpassing our expectations, and in the process instilling a belief that designers and architects need to play a larger role in the realization of a more compelling and more equitable built environment. From the beginning, PROXY was a departure for Envelope, our Bay Area architecture and design collective; we had previously been just service providers trying to operate at a high level, whether meeting the brief provided by others or responding to architectural competitions. PROXY became an experiment in the reinstatement of public space in urban life — space where people can share experiences and create bonds that foster community cohesiveness.

An obvious statement, perhaps, but it bears articulating in a time when the idea of public space for the public — accessible to all without regard to cultural identity, purchasing power, or ability — is eroding. Public space is increasingly designed, and surveilled, to be exclusive: exclusive of those who are identified as “not belonging” or who aren’t actively consuming. We believe that the exhilarating nature of cities is rooted in a heterogeneity of inputs one encounters and that our most compelling public places engage the full variety of urban life.

PROXY, 2016. Photo: Christopher Woodcock

Making PROXY a place for all is a conscious act: its main site isn’t very buttoned-down, its edges are porous, some parts remain unbuilt, others raw and unfinished. The plaza is largely open on three sides with a few small modular structures anchoring the corners, so that a bustle of activity flows between the inner space and the surrounding streets and sidewalks. The pavement varies depending on what we could afford: most of the site is a decorated version of the asphalt parking lot the space once was. This scrappiness, we hope, sends a message that everyone is welcome.

PROXY, Biergarten, 2011. Photo: Joe Perez-Green

In 2010, San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office requested proposals for temporary uses on city-owned vacant lots at the request of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association [HVNA]. Several years earlier, the city had removed the earthquake-damaged Central Freeway, leaving a ten-block-long serpentine scar through the neighborhood; amid a severe economic recession, ambitious plans for new housing had stalled. The HVNA hoped temporary uses would spur economic development and bring life to these fallow sites. In responding to the call, our studio saw potential in two parcels situated alongside Patricia’s Green (a newly created park) and the main shopping street of Hayes Valley. Within these rents in the built fabric of San Francisco, we wondered, could a nimbler model for development change how cities are made?

We began with a three-year, market-rate lease with the city and a mandate to remove any above-ground improvements at lease-end. These terms focused our efforts on unearthing the potential of impermanence, which establishes its own logic of presence — following this logic, we sought to unseat the expected, establish a liminal notion of presence, and catalyze serendipitous experience by making people aware of the constant change that surrounds us.

We looked to the temporary architectures of European cities (open air markets in Rome and Barcelona, street vendor kiosks and sidewalk booksellers in Paris) and found inspiration in Archigram’s conceptual “Instant City” project from 1974. We plumbed our design studio’s local network of chefs, curators, artists, and entrepreneurs. We developed design strategies that utilized low-cost, easily deployable modular structures and assembled alternative versions of the site’s (temporary) future with input from neighbors and local business owners at community meetings.

PROXY, 2011. Photo: Joe Perez-Green

PROXY grew one piece at a time into a collection of small local businesses — a strategy informed by cash flow as much as a desire to let the site’s development unfold unburdened by a strictly interpreted master plan. We focused on building conviviality and community, starting with Smitten Ice Cream, which transformed from a mobile vendor to a full-production store, then coffee purveyor Ritual Roasters, and following a few months later with the opening of Biergarten, an offshoot of Hayes Valley’s beloved Suppenküche restaurant. After the Museum of Craft and Design lost its exhibition space, we collaborated with the staff on a series of rotating art installations. A year after Aether Apparel’s touring retail airstream visited PROXY we built the business’s first retail location at the plaza’s edge — a narrow stack of three forty-foot shipping containers. Finally, we built a home base for the neighborhood-grown Streets of San Francisco Bicycle Tours and a micro store for JuiceShop. We learned as we went, especially over our first five years, working in a looping process of prototyping and refinement, incorporating unexpected opportunities along the way.

PROXY, Ritual Roasters, 2011. Photo: Joe-Perez Green

In 2015, an extension of our lease (the city wanted more time to coalesce long-term plans for the site2) gave us the opportunity to change our focus. PROXY morphed from an incubator for micro-enterprise and art experiences into an experiment in public space as we came to embrace the heightened importance of the public realm in an increasingly dense city. To create a framework of exchange and connection, we crafted part of the site into a flexible plaza that transforms into a walk-in theater for independent film festivals by night. We founded a non-profit, HERE FOR NOW, to ensure that this cultural programming is free and open to all. In addition to making PROXY available for public meetings hosted by others, we explored collaborations with a variety of San Francisco arts and culture organizations and designed an outdoor fitness gym into the plaza space, creating playful juxtapositions of movement and stasis. The scene continues to change week to week, thanks to an evolving cast of mobile food and retail offerings, and intermittent art installations and pop-up events, including The St. Francis Day animal blessing ceremony, the RISD Design Alumni “Everything Must Go” Art Fair, and weekly Silent Disco Raves.

PROXY-SFJAZZ Block Party, 2016. Photo: Rebecca Jay

We call ourselves the developer of PROXY, but the reality invites a larger discussion about the bounds of architectural practice. PROXY differs from the developer-driven “phase zero” projects, which are more about advanced marketing for a future development. Phase zero is often the trojan horse of gentrification, the virus that rewrites the code of a place toward monetization of marginalized sectors of cities. Our model seeks to establish a place informed by the values and desires of the community that is already there, regardless of what will follow.

As developers we took on all the usual responsibilities involved in realizing a built project, from crunching numbers and securing funding (in a recession!) to orchestrating myriad approvals. PROXY’s financial baseline is that we lease the land from the city, then sublease smaller portions to our vendors at effectively “pass-thru” rental rates (meaning we don’t take additional money from the vendors, and therefore don’t make a profit; the rent charged by the city is simply divided among them based on space allocation). We make our selections after considering the qualities and culture vendors bring to the whole, with a strong preference for small, local entrepreneurs. We don’t pursue big names and aren’t swayed by the highest bidders. More than landlords, we have designed nearly everything there; our vendors are also our clients — and our collaborators. To realize the project we invented business models for each distinct component of the project (bringing and distributing utilities across the site, ground surface improvements and graphics, each vendor’s structures, the shared restrooms, the movie screen and projector) and implemented them through relatively minimal means. Our primary business goals were twofold: to help our small businesses partners thrive and, simply, to not go bankrupt ourselves in the process.

As architects and urbanists, our development strategy focuses on the transformative power of a place designed to respond directly to a community’s culture and creative energy. PROXY established a framework that prioritizes public space and community, but it is the involvement of local artists, entrepreneurs, curators, institutions (such as SFJAZZ and the Exploratorium), and neighbors that really makes it a place. In another site, with other people, PROXY’s approach would manifest very different programmatic responses and spatial conditions.

Looking back over PROXY’s decade-long trajectory, some of the lessons we’ve learned are difficult to face. As much as we can say PROXY is an open construct where everyone is welcome, we must acknowledge that when we conceived the project we failed to fully examine the risks of gentrification and the legacy of disparities right here in this neighborhood. When we started the project, PROXY’s neighbor was a remnant of a long-gone building occupied by a cohort of drug dealers and prostitutes. The site was eventually cleared and developed and that rougher urban realm in which PROXY was forged faded from memory. And although the Hayes Valley community has long supported economic inclusivity through affordable housing, the influx of new condominiums and high-end retail from 2014 to 2018 shifted the neighborhood toward a predominately white, urban consumer culture. Our early focus on food and art may have been a good formula for getting PROXY off the ground, but it also played into this shift; well-meaning interventions can be trojan horses as much as cynical ones are.

PROXY, Cultural Corridor event: PUSH Dance Company, 2016. Photo: African-American Shakespeare Co.

More importantly, while we spent a lot of time working with the community from the outset, we only paused to ask who was missing from the table when we started curating our film festivals in 2015. As we considered what films would resonate with the neighborhood, we began to ask who actually is the wider community we should be speaking to. The festivals became vehicles for bringing forward stories, documentaries, and other works by and about people of color, and the entwined nature of culture, identity, and place, through films like Skate Kitchen, Sorry to Bother You, and Bisbee ‘17. We also have used our public platform to surface difficult truths, fostering dialogue and self-reflection about the endemic supremacist processes that have forged US cities, through films like Whose Streets and our online content.

These efforts to expand the range of voices and perspectives represented in the curatorial program are a start at broadening inclusion and increasing awareness at PROXY. But they are coming way too late, toward the tail end of its temporary lifespan. For us, this underscores the importance of raising questions of equity at the outset of our projects.

NOW Hunters Point, Listening Event, 2014. Photo: Anne Hamersky

It’s a lesson we have applied in subsequent work. Our NOW Hunters Point project (in collaboration with Liz Ogbu from Studio O) has forged a community hub within a former industrial landscape — a place of restoration and renewal in Bayview Hunters Point. From its inception we embraced a process of interactive community engagement with the expressed goal of understanding who the community is. What are the desires and needs of these individuals? How can this become a place loved by them?

Over seven years, through an evolving program of events and workshops ranging from an annual summer circus and movie nights to bike-riding classes and food bank services, we have gathered input from event attendees and local partners. This sustained community feedback informs our programming, undergirds our design of the shoreline park (completed in 2017) and, ultimately, has articulated a shared vision for the permanent development of the 34-acre site.

PROXY and NOW Hunters Point have changed not only the way our studio does work, but also the values that drive us forward. These projects have focused us as advocates for people, places, and the city; we seek to be proactive agents of change in creating a more equitable city. Starting with empathy and deep listening, we gain insights into a place before we act. We look to the people who live there (the real experts in that place) and seek to forge a working partnership with them. Rewriting the book on the perfunctory community meeting, we situate the core of our process in building relationships, maintaining a durational conversation that runs parallel to any development plans. We see this as a better way of working, one capable of crafting a vision of the future rooted in the present values and needs of a place.

We are unsure how long PROXY will persist; its demise was envisioned at its conception. HERE FOR NOW. Before it was the name for our non-profit, it was our motto, stressing the importance of presence and heightened engagement, of seizing the moment. Dynamic cities, by their nature, are always in flux. Our hope for this place — for all places — is that the neighborhood residents will have, or demand, the agency to shape its next iteration, and that they will have gotten some inspiration from PROXY’s short inhabitation of this small corner of the world.

PROXY, crane day, 2011. Photo: Joe Perez-Green

  1. The “we” here is our team of architects, designers, and programmers at ENVELOPE Architecture and Design. Our PROXY project team over this past decade includes: Grayson Holden, Lizzie Wallack, Clarke Selman, Julian Paul, Leila Khosrovi, Lindsey Schott, Allegra Madsen, Veronica Volok, Caren Curie, Melissa Wong, Reed Burnham, Lex Phelan, Cassie McDonald, and Obie Hamrick. Local film director Malcolm Pullinger provides additional curatorial support for our film festivals.
  2. The long-term plan for PROXY’s sites is a mixture of market-rate and below-market-rate housing. In summer and fall of 2019, SF Real Estate and the SF Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) held community meetings to share a draft of an open RFP for developers. The neighborhood requested changes to the draft, but with the arrival of a new supervisor for the district in winter of 2020 and the onset of COVID-19 in the spring, plans for these sites remain in limbo.

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