A doomed installation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro revealed the secret life behind the facades of San Francisco
This is a city of desire that has wooed and won a legion, from Alfred Hitchcock, whose camera panned its hills and waters so lovingly and so often, to MFK Fisher, in whose imagination its streets and cafés became a sort of endlessly replenishing carnival, or Eudora Welty, entranced by the perpetual evanescence of a town that hid for part of every day in a silvery shroud of fog only to awaken with equal regularity to sunlit clarity. It is full of contradictions. At a glance, with its charming air of the shopworn and its apparent gift for repetition, its patterns and palette seem fixed and firm. Yet it is in fact incurably volatile. Most of its streets were built of nearly nothing, as Welty puts it, ‘all in one day’, and not once, but twice − first in the flush of the Gold Strike and then in the rampant tenement speculation in the decade after it shook and burned to the ground 110 years ago. And it has aroused the fiercest loyalties among the host of poets and performers who settled there, yet its metropolitan history is marked as the most conspicuously contentious in North America.
Here was the first revolt against freeways late in the 1950s; the movement for free speech that first closed down Berkeley in the mid 1960s; the emergence of the Black Panthers as an alternative state on the streets of Oakland; the fight for a People’s Park by those calling for a louder voice and for the streets around San Francisco State by students striking to open our ears to other histories and voices; the occupation of Alcatraz by Americans demanding acknowledgement of native rights; and the long city hall vigils that came in the wake of the assassination of Harvey Milk as gay people demanded safety and respect.
More quietly, but with even more transformative effect, the city in the years since these uprisings has become the subject of another conquest. Once past the towers of the small financial centre it still looks deceptively the same, and the number of people within the city boundaries has been constant. But it has in fact been largely swallowed up by the mediatic denizens of Silicon Valley and essentially become an upscale suburb of the outlying towns to its south. Few others can now afford to live there.
Among the most intense of those earlier contests for space was a popular rebellion − huge, extended, lengthy and woefully unsuccessful − against the demolition of an entire working community south of Market Street to make way for a convention and cultural centre and for the rampant wave of residential and commercial ‘redevelopment’ that would come with it. In this contested site − at the Moscone Convention Center − the city called in the mid-’90s for a work of public art, in a competition won by Diller and Scofidio with their proposal for ‘Facsimile’, a slowly rolling screen carrying changing live imagery across the facade.
Installed after much difficulty in 2004, ‘Facsimile’, as Edward Dimendberg describes it, ‘mixes images of the street, live transmissions from inside the building and hundreds of hours of scenes filmed by the architects and displays them on a screen designed to travel from one end of the building to the other. It explores liveness, privacy and windows in a unique amalgam of television, video art, cinema, the Internet and architecture … an invitation to think rather than consume.’ As the architects point out, the transparency of the glass building is enhanced through the illusory ‘virtual transparency’ of the screen; while the actual programmes, pre-recorded to simulate real time and move at the same pace as the structure, are in fact ‘fictional vignettes, impostors’.
The mechanics of maintaining the piece are complicated and required some modifiying and intervention. But the city soon lost the will either to fix or maintain what it had commissioned and constructed with such effort and allowed it to remain inactive. Now it has decided to demolish it entirely. So this fascinating facsimile of life in the shifting ether of the media age will hear its voice too silenced by authority, and we will lose with its loss something that spoke with compelling uncertainty of a life that might or might not be in a city that is and isn’t there.