Category Archives: Financial Times

San Francisco's Mission Bay Renewed [Financial Times]

Financial Times, January 13 2007

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It took more than 20 years to negotiate an acceptable plan
but Mission Bay, San Francisco’s newest neighbourhood,
is now thriving, writes Tracey Taylor

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It was described as “the last great hole in the fabric of San Francisco” – 300 acres of blighted land with an abandoned railway yard that once served the city’s bustling docks. Then, in 1998, after more than two decades of tangled planning negotiations, a decision was reached on how to fill it. Today, Mission Bay is a brand new neighbourhood emerging in the middle of a world city, an urbanist vision in the throes of creation.

Strolling through the area, which is just south of downtown San Francisco on its eastern waterfront, one can see the transformation first-hand. Flanked on three sides by the bay, embracing a water channel, Mission Creek, and incorporating an existing public-transit infrastructure, it is a promising site in different stages. Parts of it are still scraggy tracts of wasteland, while others are construction areas with buildings rising at breakneck speed.

There are also now quarters with housing, shops, offices and parks. And two venerable San Francisco institutions have moved in, helping to jump-start regeneration. At Mission Bay’s north gateway is a retro-style stadium for the beloved Giants baseball team built in 2000. South of the channel, a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), campus dedicated to life sciences is in its second phase of construction, with several teaching and accommodation buildings, a terracotta-hued community centre, leafy plazas and an imposing Richard Serra sculpture. A cancer hospital will complete the biotechnology centre.

The broader $4bn-plus master plan for Mission Bay calls for 6,000 homes, 28 per cent of which will be “affordable” units designed to alleviate the city’s housing shortage; 5m sq ft of commercial office space; a hotel; and integrated parkland.

One of the first projects was a residential block of affordable housing on King Street, north of the creek. There is also a community centre for senior citizens and the first new library built in San Francisco for more than 40 years. Linda Sobuta, principal architect at SMWM, which designed the residential building, describes the arrival of a Safeway grocery store in 2003, as a turning point. “It wasn’t a neighbourhood until Safeway moved in,” she says.

On a walking tour, Sobuta says she’s enjoying watching Mission Bay become an “urban village”. Its grid, she explains, is based on the historic Spanish vara unit that emphasises short blocks with view corridors and pedestrian-friendly access ways. She points to the promenade that has been created alongside the creek with its attractive slabs of single-unit paving stone and high-quality street furniture. The landscaping on the water’s edge has been designed to create a natural habitat for indigenous birds. And the owners of a cluster of houseboats further down the channel have been promised they can stay.

Like any blossoming neighbourhood, Mission Bay has yet to burrow its way into the city’s consciousness. “It’s not yet sizzling. It needs to be scuffed up, to get the patina of use,” says John King, architecture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “But it’s fascinating to see a neighbourhood pop up out of thin air. And it’s a very good long-term investment for San Francisco.”

Donna Dell’Era moved into the area eight months ago. Her top-floor condominium was one of the last available at 235 Berry, a smart residential complex overlooking the creek, where three-bedroom, three-bathroom “townhome-style” homes sold for $1.3m. Dell’Era, who works for a public utility company in the city, describes herself and her husband as empty nesters. They sold their large home in Marin County, across the bay, when their fourth child went to college. “My pipedream for when we retire is to swap condos with people around the world,” she says. “And what better place than this? The interiors are very nice and it has views of water and the city.” Dell’Era also appreciates the neighbourhood feel. She and her husband enjoy meeting fellow dog-owners on walks by the creek and, before Christmas, they attended a tree-trimming party for their building’s residents.

Nelson Rising, the former chairman and chief executive of Catellus Development Corporation, which recreated Mission Bay, also bought a condominium. “I love the convenience,” he says. “I love having restaurants nearby and the fact that I can walk everywhere.” It takes about 15 minutes to walk from his home to the Embarcadero, the foodie heaven that is San Francisco’s Ferry Building and on to the main shopping drag of Market Street.

Catellus, which has since been merged into ProLogis, won the rights to develop Mission Bay after a long history of planning applications that stumbled at the starting block. Rising is credited with having had the vision to craft a proposal that would win approval from notoriously outspoken city residents, who invariably file lawsuits to oppose new projects. “Nelson understands the complexities at the political, environmental and community level,” says Doug Gardner, who led the Mission Bay project at Catellus. “He created the goodwill to make it happen.”

Crucial to the plan was the landmark deal that Rising, with the help of then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, engineered to attract UCSF, which was considering alternative locations. The university was offered 43 acres of land free, a donation valued at more than $170m. Rising also attributes the proposal’s success to its sensitivity to public policy imperatives. “It included a system of parks, integrated affordable housing and was very transit oriented,” he says. The extent of citizen consultation also helped. “The planning team was respectful of the public realm.”

One controversial issue was building height. In the end restrictions were agreed so that no building is taller than 160ft, roughly the same height as the ballpark’s main tower. This is a point of contention for some. “San Francisco used to be violently against height but you only have to look at the city’s skyline to see to what extent that has changed,” King says. “The danger with long-range planning is that it’s too time-consuming to revisit it. Now we have a collection of short, squat buildings at Mission Bay.” But residents of Potrero Hill, to the west of the area, made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate having their bay views obstructed.

There is one wrinkle in Mission Bay’s grand plan: the dotcom bust and subsequent economic fall-out that left a recommendation for 5m sq ft of commercial space looking optimistic. “So far they have only built 600,000 sq ft due to lack of demand,” says Amy Neches, senior project manager for Mission Bay at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “It will take time. It’s a 20- to 30-year development project and it’s based on the knowledge that real estate markets work in cycles.”

Otherwise, Mission Bay appears to tick most of the boxes for a grand-scale, mixed-use urban development. Jim Chappell, president of public policy think-tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which consulted on the process, deems it to be a “great success”. “The big surprise is the aggressiveness with which the university has been able to develop its projects. They have led the private sector and been the engine of the project,” he says. Chappell also believes having a single developer was an asset. “Mission Bay demonstrates one of the advantages of a large-scale co-ordinated development. You can’t provide all the amenities with a parcel-by-parcel approach.” Perhaps most importantly, he adds, the area’s residential market flourished immediately. “Housing has flown off the shelf.”

It’s possible that Mission Bay, one of the largest ongoing urban developments in the US, will one day be seen as a model of how it’s done. At the very least people might be drawn there for a little sunshine. In a city notorious for its fog and damp, the developers are keen to point out that the new neighbourhood offers not only terrific new lifestyle but also a superior microclimate.

Joseph Eichler: Living an Idealist’s Dream [Financial Times]

Financial Times, February 17 2007
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The homes of Joseph Eichler, who built more than 10,000 homes in northern California, still epitomise the modern ideal. This is California living as we imagine it. And for those in the San Francisco Bay area it has become attainable. By Tracey Taylor
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The house is a low-slung mid-century modern beauty, set at the foot of rolling golden hills. Sunlight streams through swathes of plate glass. A few choice pieces of classic Eames and Herman Miller furniture adorn the open-plan living spaces. Outside, a large wooden deck and landscaped garden give on to a glittering, kidney-shaped pool that invites thoughts of cocktails at sundown.This is California living as we imagine it. It’s suburbs with style. And for those in the San Francisco Bay area who have rediscovered the homes of Joseph Eichler, it has become attainable.

Eichler was an idealistic and somewhat idiosyncratic developer who, in the 1950s and 1960s, built more than 10,000 houses in northern California. One might compare these with the homes designed by well-known architects, such as Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig, also in the same area and now much coveted. But, unlike these, an Eichler home is still relatively affordable.

Tim Brown, chief executive of design company Ideo, moved to the US from the UK in 2000 and knew immediately that he wanted to buy an Eichler house. “It was hard to get excited about anything else,” he explains. “I’m always looking for authenticity. In England we had a Georgian house and here we have a house that is a natural fit with its environment.”

His family rented “the perfect Eichler in the perfect neighbourhood” in Palo Alto, before finding one to buy and restore a block away.

Noriko Takiguchi, a writer, rents an Eichler in the Greenmeadows neighbourhood of Palo Alto. She says the clean lines and lack of decoration remind her of Japanese homes. “I like the fact that the house favours simplicity,” she says. She also appreciates the skylights, which “keep the light very stable”, and the open spaces that can be partitioned to suit her needs. Takiguchi is looking for a house to buy with her partner, journalist Dan Gillmor, but says the task is proving difficult. “It’s very hard to look for a house after living in an Eichler. Everything else looks so ordinary.”

If these houses seem progressive today, they were even more so when Eichler built them. Influenced by the European modernist movement and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, his vision was to provide affordable, elegant modern design, if not for the masses then certainly for the burgeoning middle class, after the second world war. Over a period of more than 20 years, he created dozens of residential sub-divisions. He used a basic tract housing template and an assembly-line approach to construction to keep costs low. But he also employed gifted architects, such as A. Quincy Jones and Anshen & Allen, and respected landscapers, including Thomas Church and Kathryn Stedman, to ensure high aesthetic standards.

The result was a significant departure from the traditional suburban houses of the time and ran counter to the way most developers made a profit. “Eichler’s insight was that the tradition established in the 1920s with the school of California modernism could be opened up to people other than the [wealthy] patrons who hired architects to design one-off homes,” says Paul Adamson, co-author with Marty Arbunich of Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream.

The single-storey, flat-roofed houses came in a variety of off-the-shelf models but shared certain fundamental characteristics. They were centred on the idea of indoor-outdoor living to take advantage of the benign Californian climate and blur the line between home and garden. There are flexible open-plan living areas, floor-to-ceiling walls of glass, skylights, sliding glass doors and built-in furnishings. Some of the more spacious models are built around a central, glass-walled atrium echoing the inner courtyards of Mediterranean homes.

The extreme aesthetic didn’t immediately appeal to the day’s homebuyers. But Eichler anticipated this and created a pioneering marketing scheme that went beyond advertising homes and promoted, instead, the entire lifestyle. Stylish photography by Ernie Braun formed the backbone of press campaigns and brochures that showed children happily playing with toy trains and roller-skating in the airy, open-plan spaces, and glamorous couples hosting dinner parties on their back decks, the women clad in chic, figure-hugging 1950s frocks.

There was also a socially conscious element to Eichler’s community building. Inspired, it is said, by a photograph of two schoolboys, one African-American, one Asian, walking home from school arm in arm, he practised a policy of non-discrimination at a time when many builders in the US were still drawing racial lines. Eichler’s views were in tune with the emerging post-war culture of the Bay area. Soldiers who had served alongside recruits from a variety of ethnic backgrounds were returning with a different world view, many of them with federal loans to spend on starter homes.

Not everyone shared Eichler’s utopian vision and there are tales of families baulking at the idea of living in racially integrated neighbourhoods. But “Eichler had a strong personality,” says Carolyn Lenert, a real estate agent with years of experience buying and selling Eichler homes, who also lives in one herself. “Supposedly he told people he would buy back their house if they didn’t like their neighbours.”

Lenert says today’s Eichler home­buyers come in many guises. Families are attracted to the neighbourhoods because they often boast good schools and have been designed as functional communities. Brown lives in an area actually called Community Center and includes at its heart a leisure complex with swimming pool, children’s theatre and zoo. “It’s like a village. My two daughters walk to school. And the quality of life is great,” he says. Conversely the single-storey houses also appeal to an older generation who want to scale down and live on one level.

In 1953 an Eichler home would have gone on the market for between $14,000 and $20,000 – “a little pricier than the average home at the time but still affordable, and [with] the architectural attributes of much more expensive homes,” Adamson says.

Today’s prices depend on location, size and the condition of the house. Lenert recently sold a three-bedroom model in San Rafael’s Terra Linda neighbourhood for $280,000. Brown bought his four-bedroom home for $1m and spent a good deal refurbishing it. The Bay area has a notoriously inflated property market and the closer the commuting distance to San Francisco or Silicon Valley, the higher the cost will be.

Margaret Chester and her partner bought a 1964 atrium-model Eichler in Concord, about 30 miles east of San Francisco, a year ago for $680,000. She says they were immediately smitten. “When we walked through the front door, we were both taken aback. The atrium floor was covered with Travertine tile. We could see through the atrium and living room to the back garden. It was love at first sight.”

The couple, who both work full time, relish getting home at the end of the day. “We gravitate to the back yard if for nothing more than to stick our feet in the pool and enjoy a cold beer,” says Chester. “We didn’t know that mid-century modern was a big deal until we had moved in. The style of the house makes us feel balanced. It’s just a good fit for us.”

Creative types such as designers and architects were drawn to Eichler homes when they were first built and continue to be a core group of buyers. Brown estimates at least 10 of his staff at Ideo live in Eichler homes. Larry Cheng is one of them. He says he chose his Palo Alto house “because it is beautiful and extraordinary”. He particularly loves seeing the reflection of the home’s roof beams in the window at night and “the illusion that my house is outside”. “It’s such a different answer to the question: ‘what should a house be?’,” he says.

The homes are not without their problems, however. Age and the fact that they were built on a budget mean that restoration and maintenance can be expensive. Lenert also points to the fact that they are not fire resistant. “Once the glass breaks, the camp fire is fed,” she says. “I don’t suggest Eichlers to people who enjoy a candle lifestyle.”

Built in an era of cheap energy, the homes have minimal insulation and their flat roofs and trademark radiant heating systems often need overhauls. “You should see the expression on people’s faces when I tell them what work is required to get their house in shape,” says architect Joe DeCredico, who has refurbished many Eichlers. He says costs can run as high as $800,000, as much as would be needed to build from scratch.

Yet such drawbacks have not deterred for the many aficionados who meet online at the Eichler Network’s Chatterbox Lounge (www.eichlernetwork.com) to exchange tips on knowledgeable tradesmen and where to find parts for the homes’ original Thermador ovens.

Marty Arbunich, who co-founded the network in 1993, says the level of interest for Eichler homes is climbing every year. “In part this has been brought on by the dotcom and real-estate boom in California,” he says. But he also thinks the homes fulfil a nostalgic craving for “better and simpler times”.

Relocation: I'm an Executive, Get me Out of Here [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, March 4, 2006

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Last summer I cleared my house out until all that was left were bare floorboards and dustballs and I moved, with my family, to California. I thought I had covered all the bases, as far as you can when you are starting a new life on the other side of the world. We found a family naive enough to want to rent our house and embark on the wretched experience that is school selection in inner London. The possessions that remained after the big cull – 109 boxes of books principally – left Tilbury Docks on a ship bound for the US. We found somewhere to live and a school for the children and, within a few weeks, had settled into the American way of life.

The important things went right. But, of course, there were hitches. No move is without them. The removal company held on to our possessions until we agreed to pay a substantial supplementary bill. They said we had underestimated the volume of the consignment. US Customs refused to release our container because the paperwork wasn’t in order. When the goods were eventually released, my computer’s hard drive had died. A small-print clause I had failed to spot in our insurance meant that we were not covered. With no financial rating in the US, I was denied a credit card, and my US bank froze my account several times, ominously citing anti-terrorism legislation. Oh, and my application for health insurance was turned down.

There were no such irritations for Ian McGeechan, who recently took up the post of director of rugby at UK Premiership champions London Wasps. This involved a move from Scotland, where he was director of rugby for the Scottish RFU, to somewhere within a commutable distance from London. McGeechan handed over the logistics of the move to the Relocation Bureau, a small UK-based company whose clients include Logitech, Amazon.com, Volvo and Cancer Research UK.

The timing of McGeechan’s move south was awkward in that it coincided with him having to be in New Zealand for the 2005 Lions Tour. “As I was 12,000 miles away from my wife, it was comforting for her to know that somebody was responsible for the move,” he says. “The Relocation Bureau co-ordinated everything. They scouted out areas for us to live and narrowed down a selection of houses. They got a good feel of what my wife wanted in a house and, once we had chosen one, they co-ordinated solicitors, builders and so on. They always kept us informed and dealt with all the details – even organising for a new fence to be built around the house before we moved in. I couldn’t have done any of that so it was good to feel the process was under control.”

McGeechan’s move was relatively straightforward, and domestic. But relocation companies really come into their own for globetrotters such as Nico Kelling, a senior manager at Infineon, the German semiconductor specialist. When Kelling moved from his home in Munich to Indiana for the company in 1998 he managed the relocation himself. “I spoke English and it was a short-term post so I just needed to find a furnished apartment to rent, which was easy,” he says. But in December 2005, when Infineon assigned Kelling to Tokyo, they offered him the services of a specialist, Going-There Destination Services. “They carried out a home search and handled all the red tape such as alien registration with local authorities and setting up a bank account. They organised an initial orientation tour of the city and helped with questions I had over a driver’s licence and phone service,” says Kelling.

“The biggest challenge in Tokyo is the language barrier, so it was time-saving to have help, particularly on the negotiations relating to my rental contract, which would have been more difficult to do alone.” He adds that he suspects having a Japanese-speaking expert on hand probably also widened his choice of places to live. “My options would have been limited to apartments with landlords who spoke English had I been looking on my own,” he says.

Linda Behnke, a partner at Golding Capital Partners, is a serial globetrotter. She relocated four times in 10 years for a previous employer, flitting between Munich, New York and San Francisco. Each move was managed by Mobility Services International, a company that claims to “demystify relocation”.

“They handled all aspects of the physical move,” she says. “I was very happy with them so used them every time.” Nevertheless she says each move was progressively more difficult. “This is partly because you amass more.” But the more angst-inducing aspects were out of her – and the relocators’ – control. “Every time we moved, the removal company underestimated the fee. I think it’s because they are aware that there are other [higher] bids and they figure they can’t lose as they will just change the price later,” she says.

Linda says each move has resulted in breakages, although they have all been covered by insurance. She also underwent the heart- stopping experience of $50,000 “going missing” as it was being transferred between her European and US bank accounts. Only dogged persistence on her part in getting the banks to tackle the problem – and the paper (and e-mail) trail she had kept of all her correspondence on the matter – resulted in her funds reappearing five weeks later. Her advice now: find a bank that is accustomed to dealing with ex-pats and clients on the move.

Having learned the hard way, Linda has two more tips for those relocating: “The move will always cost 20 per cent to 25 per cent more than you think it will and the consignment will always arrive later than promised,” she says.

These days, in a pressure-cooker global career market where a senior executive might be assigned a new post with as little as a week’s notice, corporations routinely offer the services of a relocation company along with the transfer orders. Big multinationals move between 1 per cent and 4 per cent of their employees around the world every year and turn to relocation specialists such as Cendant, Prudential, Sirva and Weichert to help them do it. Many of the these behemoths include removal companies and real-estate networks in their corporate portfolios.

The benefits offered in a relocation package differ from one company to the next, and are negotiable depending on the seniority of the employee, the degree to which the corporation wants to retain him or her, and the perceived “hardship” factor of the move. Along with the task of physically moving a household and its contents, services may include assistance with selling an existing home, identifying suitable neighbourhoods and schools, as well as financing a home purchase in the new location. Orientation services may include guidance on setting up bank accounts and getting connected with local ISPs, access to on-the-ground agents with local expertise, as well as “spouse support”, which might include information on local job resources or educational courses.

Companies engage relocators with one main objective: to move an employee swiftly and with the minimum amount of upheaval, so that they are at their desk and functional as soon as possible. “From a company viewpoint, the employee is at work working rather than house hunting, school hunting, or putting up pictures,” says Craig Vassie, a partner at The Relocation Bureau. Or, as John Arcario, executive vice-president at Cendant Mobility, puts it: “If somebody is moved without a relocation expert it’s the employer that suffers because you end up with a distracted employee and a potentially unsuccessful move.”

Chuck Stewart, client services director at Going-There, says cost- cutting has had an effect on the nature of the perks offered by corporate relocation. Increasingly, advantages such as the employer buying and selling-on a home, bridging loans and compensation for a spouse’s lost earnings are reserved for the “top brass”, he says. And some companies are choosing the self-help option. “There’s a trend for companies to give employees a lump sum and tell them to manage the move themselves,” he says.

There is no average cost for a relocation. Variables such as the value of an employee’s home and his or her seniority all play a part. The Relocation Bureau charges about £5,000 to relocate what it terms an “executive family”. At the other end of the scale Arcario estimates that the outlay for a multinational moving a senior executive with expensive housing requirements from New York to London would be well in excess of the value of his or her annual salary.

It is not just the corporate world that hires relocation companies. Two years ago the University of Southampton introduced relocation services as part of its staff recruitment policy. “We wanted to attract the best staff from wherever they were based geographically,” says Zelda Franklin-Hills, the university’s head of staff diversity. “It is stressful moving to a new job and it makes sense to offer support to ease those pressures so new staff can settle in and contribute to the university quickly.” Franklin- Hills has also observed how an offer of help with relocation can make the difference between a faculty member accepting a post at the university or elsewhere. “It can be the deciding factor between one job and another,” she says.

Although it is difficult to see how having expert guidance cannot be beneficial for people on the move, there are times when relocation companies can be more of a hindrance than a help. This proved the case for one family who moved within the US last year. The non-profit organisation for which the husband is a director selected a relocation agent, ostensibly to work on the family’s behalf. The agent was to sell the family’s existing home and help them find a new one in the city they were moving to, as well as manage the bridging loan provided by the husband’s employer and oversee the transportation of their goods. However, because the agent was overseeing the financial side of the move, which directly implicated the employer, the family didn’t feel their interests were being best served.

The relocator also appointed a real-estate agent based in a town 20 miles from where the family wanted to live. Feeling he lacked the local knowledge they needed, the family had to negotiate to select their own realtor. “There were times when we seriously thought about getting shot of the relocator,” says the mother of the family, who would rather not be identified, “even if that meant sacrificing the benefits that were being offered, such as the loan to buy a new home.”

In the end, though, a good experience with a relocation company can mean the difference between a successful move and one that flounders or fails. Had I been forewarned about consignment size, credit ratings and how to fill in a health insurance application, I may have avoided some of the headaches of my move.

The value of having someone on hand with local expertise is also repeatedly cited by relocation companies and those who have used them as being critical to a smooth transition. “You might be moving to the Bay Area in California, but do you know which neighbourhoods have the right schools for your children, employment possibilities for your spouse and like-minded communities to live in?” says Arcario at Cendant Mobility.

Meanwhile Vassie at The Relocation Bureau recalls a case of an American executive who was moving to the UK for her first overseas posting for a large multinational. “She was being helped by US ‘counsellors’ based in Connecticut,” he says. “As she needed to be within reach of Heathrow and a factory in Peterborough she was advised to live in King’s Cross.” It was a few years before the current regeneration scheme, and “it took us a while to persuade her that living next door to pimps and drug addicts wasn’t exactly a good idea.”

Burn Out: A Berkeley Home Goes up in Flames [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, June 24, 2006

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On Sunday October 20 1991, Frances Dinkelspiel and her husband Gary Wayne, who live in the Bay Area of California, decided to take his parents, who were visiting from New Jersey, to brunch in San Francisco. Their roommate, Brad Rosen, was having a lazy morning. He had been partying the night before and planned to go surfing later in the day. It was hot and windy as they drove over the Bay Bridge to the city and made for Zuni Café on Market Street. A couple of hours later they stepped out onto the pavement and glanced over towards the Oakland Hills where they lived. “There was a huge vertical column of smoke rising from the hills,” says Frances. “At that moment we knew we were in trouble.”

They drove back towards home but could only go so far as all the streets leading up into the hills had been closed off. Gary begged a bicycle from a friend who lived nearby and set off to find out what he could. He didn’t get far. A group of firefighters stopped him at the end of his street and asked him where he thought he was going. They told him it was so hot they themselves had to leave. Gary abandoned the bike and hiked to the summit of nearby Claremont Canyon from where he could see the fire cutting a devastating path across the hills. “Gary called me late in the afternoon,” says Frances. “He said he had watched our house burn down. He was crying and Gary hardly ever cries.”

The Oakland Fire, one of the largest and most costly in US history, engulfed 2.5 square miles of the East Bay Hills. Twenty five people died, many of them trapped in their cars trying to flee, caught up in the traffic jams that formed on the hill’s narrow, winding streets. More than 150 people were injured and at least 3,000 homes were destroyed, leaving some 5,000 people homeless.

Although the exact cause has not been established, a suspicious fire had broken out the previous day in the scrub brush of nearby Wildcat Canyon. Firefighters said they had successfully extinguished the 5-acre blaze. Whether embers from that fire were reignited by dry winds is unclear. Certainly the velocity of the Diablo winds, coupled with temperatures well into the 90s — coming in the wake of five successive years of drought — ensured the rapid spread of the firestorm the next day. At one point a home was igniting every 11 seconds and 790 structures were consumed within a single hour. Efforts to contain the blaze were severely hampered by the steep terrain and twisting, switchback roads. There was a lack of water as the fire took out the electricity needed for the pumps. The emergency services also had difficulty communicating: channels were overloaded and the hills interfered with radio signals.

Frances and Gary lost everything in the fire, including their cat whom they searched for tirelessly in the days after the fire. Brad, their roommate, had left the house that morning with his surfboard, unaware of the impending catastrophe. As he left, the neighbours were packing their car to leave. Unlike Brad, they had heard the advice to evacuate.

Recovering from such a trauma is a slow process. Frances and Gary had only lived in the modern, four-bedroomed house for eight months after moving to the West Coast from New York. Originally from San Francisco, Frances had favoured living in the city but they had both been drawn to the eucalyptus-scented air and stunning views offered by the East Bay hills. While the house itself didn’t hold many memories, some of its contents inevitably did. Frances says one of the most difficult things to lose was a box of letters and photographs relating to her father who died when she was 16.

The couple were allowed to go to the site of their home three days after the fire. “Everything was grey as there was ash everywhere as well as huge clumps of metal, and lone chimney stacks. There was an acrid, chemical smell,” she says. The fact that so many people were affected helped. “Recovery is very different if you suffer and grieve as a community,” says Frances. She remembers how generous people were and the support groups that sprang up to deal with practical as well as emotional issues. Many of the local merchants offered discounts to fire victims.

But Frances found it hard to begin replacing things. And she didn’t feel like nesting for the baby on the way. “I didn’t prepare anything until a week or so before Charlotte was born,” she says. “I think in that way the shock was subconscious.”

Like most of those who lost their homes, the couple decided to rebuild. There was a financial incentive, but also a refusal to be defeated. “Gary was angry and, although we had discussed living elsewhere, this made him dig his heels in.” The couple had kept their insurance up to date and were able to claim substantial compensation for both the house and its contents. The quality of the new house they designed and built reflects this. Others were less fortunate, and spent years wading through red tape and even taking insurance companies to court to make claims.

The total value of the properties lost that day is estimated to exceed $2 billion. One year to the day after the fire, Frances and Gary broke ground to build their new home. Following revised building codes they have built the house from stucco, there are sprinklers in every room and fire-resistant planting in the garden. They keep negatives of treasured photographs in a bank vault and a back-up of the manuscript of the book Frances is writing is filed online. But the anxiety never really goes away. “Every time the weather turns hot and windy, I load up the car and get ready to leave,” she says.

Speaking Volumes: Ralph Steadman [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times Magazine, April 8th, 2004

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“Fiction should be banned. It’s sanctioned lying,” says artist Ralph Steadman as he guides me through his studio, a rambling outbuilding adjacent to his Georgian house in Kent. Evidence of his phenomenal creative output is everywhere: large-scale illustrations bearing his trademark ghoulish colours and ink-blots are piled high like millefeuilles, scattered across the floor and stashed in portfolios awaiting dispatch.

There are Dadaesque bottle sculptures, outsize photographs – even a shrine to Picasso. And there are books. For, in spite of his declared aversion to contemporary fiction, Steadman loves books. “I read in short bursts,” he says, “mostly reference books.” A shelf of leather-bound volumes on wine and anatomy provides particular inspiration. “I plunder these for their 19th-century wisdom and use it blatantly as the latest thinking.”

He pulls out An Atlas of Human Anatomy by Carl Toldt. “I bought this in Marin County where I ended up having a drink with Harrison Ford. I’m fascinated by drawings of the human body. I love the intensity of the observation in this book. It was a different mindset then – we’re gadflies now and don’t have long attention spans.” A book on cattle diseases is also well-thumbed.

As a child Steadman was more interested in making things than reading – model aeroplanes were a favourite. One of his first book finds was three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, on the bargain table at a shop in Rhyl, north Wales. This led eventually to I, Leonardo, his scatological interpretation of key da Vinci moments – the painting of “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” and his experiments with flight.

The Water Babies, illustrated by Heath Robinson, also made an early impression. “It started me thinking about illustration. I don’t think it should ever be secondary.” This view informed his approach to illustrating a 1968 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. There is an unspoken understanding that writers are superior to artists, he says. “I’m afraid I take an unserious approach to literature. There are so many egos. Look at the Booker Prize: it’s a shameless display of ego. I used to think anyone who was in the arts was bound to be nice, but they’re not.”

Some of Steadman’s spleen is perhaps influenced by a book on his bedside table, The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner. “It’s fantastic. It’s about how egocentric we are and how we all have our own best interests at heart,” he says. “Such awareness was quite revolutionary in 1844.”

One senses this disdain for writers is half-hearted, however. He has always moved in literary circles. “I used to go to Bernard Stone’s bookshop in Kensington. I did my signings there… I met all the poets: Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs. It was a real watering hole – or rather a wine hole.” His author friends include Will Self. “Dear old Will. He’s trying to befuddle me… He takes me down avenues I don’t wish to go down – verbal avenues. He has a tendency to invent words that are not on the map. He does it to provoke. He does try one’s concentration.”

Steadman’s concentration does not waver with regard to his work, however, or to his recent support for the refurbishment of London’s Hackney Empire theatre. He is also finishing his second book on wine, Untrodden Grapes. “I think I am coming around for the second or even the third time.”

WHAT’S ON THE SHELF

Foundations of Modern Art by Amedee Ozenfant “It’s about connections – between tribalism, music, modern art… It’s a dipper. I look in and read something quite marvellous that can affect me for the whole day.”

You Can’t Get to East Kilbride from Here: Poems 1968-2003 by Gordon Kerr “He’s the greatest living poet.”

Who’s Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers “He sends me his manuscripts – it’s like an Olympic game trying to keep them from sliding off your knees. He played God in this book and killed off the wife. I argued with him about that. Why arbitrarily dismiss this wonderful lady?”

Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer trs. by Belfort Bax and Bailey Saunders “I can’t let philosophy go by without having a look at it. I read it now and then for the intellectual exercise.”

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde” He wrote it in prison. It’s about his abject contrition for what he had done. His spirit had been broken. It’s the idea that such a sparkling mind can be driven so low.”

Speaking Volumes: Julie Myerson [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times Magazine: April 30th, 2004

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Julie Myerson admits to occasionally suffering from book fatigue. As a novelist, journalist and critic – and a regular on Newsnight Review – the books tend to pile up by her bedside. “I sometimes ignore them and read Vogue instead,” she says. “I have a complete weakness for glossy magazines.”

Usually, though, she devours books – and not only for her work. She is currently judging the Betty Trask Award for a first novel and is enthused about Louise Dean’s Becoming Strangers: “It’s fantastic. I’m as excited to discover a book like this as to read the latest Booker Prize-winner.”

When she was planning her own fictional debut, Sleepwalking, Myerson made a point of only reading first novels. “I didn’t want to read writers who had ‘moved on’.

I read Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky and it was so good that I felt very competitive.” The two are now good friends and researched and wrote their fifth novels at the same time – both are set in Suffolk where they each have second homes.

Growing up in Nottingham, Myerson was the first in her family not to leave school at 16. She distinctly remembers enjoying the Janet and John books.

“I saw one in a shop the other day and my tummy flipped over. I remember loving those three or four words each on a page in big black letters.”

As a teenager, Myerson would visit her local library every week and take out six books. She would read them all and return for six more.

One in particular left an impression. “It was called The Victorian Photograph I think, and it was scary, very creepy. I realised later that it had influenced my writing.”

Myerson’s latest novel, Something Might Happen, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, deals with a gruesome murder in a sleepy seaside town and its effect on two families.

Myerson favours contemporary fiction, and American authors take precedence. She cites John Updike, Paul Auster and Philip Roth as particular favourites – “such complex books, but I like books that I don’t fully understand.

It goes with me being impatient. I don’t like knowing what’s coming. That’s probably why I try to write surprises”.

Neither does she have much time for contemporary British women writers. She won’t name names but is disdainful of “all those self-absorbed novels that explore the ‘nothing pasts’ of their characters.

I want a proper plot”. She concedes, however, that when she started writing she took exactly the same approach.

If she had the time, Myerson would read more non-fiction. “I would read biographies of important people from the past 100 years.”

With her latest book Myerson has herself tackled non- fiction and, in effect, written a biography: the biography of her house.

Home: the Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in our House delves into the lives of all the inhabitants of her London home.

Her months of research at family record offices and local council archives uncovered abandoned children, royal servants and bigamous marriages.

It also revealed that the first owner of her house was a writer and journalist, like Myerson, with three children who were exactly the same age as Myerson’s children when she made the discovery.

A somewhat eerie revelation that one senses would be deeply satisfying to this lover of surprises.

WHAT’S ON THE SHELF

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

“This is haunting and wonderful. He writes about normal, middle-class Japanese people and about tragedy and loss, but with humour. There is a lot of ambiguity, which I like.”

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

“I would give anything to have written a book like this.”

Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide: by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope

“This kept me from going into therapy when I had three young children and was constantly anxious, scared of flying and a hypochondriac. It helped me to control my powerful imagination.”

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

“I re-read this recently thinking it wouldn’t stand up. But it does. It changed my life as a teenager – confirming every suspicion about falling in love and romance. It perplexes me more now as an adult.”

Puritan Pleasure: Palazzo Ducale, Venice [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times, January 8th, 2005

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Venice has many magical qualities, but its tendency to draw crowds isn’t one of them. So it is smugly satisfying to discover a way to avoid them entirely in the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), one of La Serenissima’s most popular attractions.

The “Secret Itinerary” is a private tour through parts of the palace that are not usually open to the public. A phone call at least a week in advance secures you a very special 90 minutes.

Having ascended the ornate, gilded steps of Scala d’Oro with the heaving masses, our guide unlocked a small, plain door and we left the hordes behind, slipping into a warren of tiny, wood-panelled offices where the real, day-to-day business of this, the nerve centre of the Venetian empire, took place.

The warren of tiny rooms is little changed from when the city’s clerks worked there in the 1790s – there are simple candle-sconces on the walls and scrubbed desks for the mountains of paperwork.

Up some narrow steps we came to the elegant chancellery, lined with map cupboards for storing treaties. Up again are the piombi, prison cells reserved for the more notorious criminals (petty offenders were kept on the ground floor). In his memoirs, Casanova tells of how he made a daring escape from here – stopping for a morning espresso at Caffe Florian before making his getaway by gondola.

We entered the torture chamber, where a single, ominous rope hangs from the rafters. Here, suspects were suspended by their wrists and questioned by the three “judges of the night”. But, the best is saved for last: right up under the eaves is the underside of a huge “floating” ceiling belonging to one of the state rooms below. Built by the Arsenale’s shipwrights in 1577, its muddle of criss-crossing beams is a formidable feat of engineering.

Emerging back into the public rooms we were invited to continue visiting the palace independently. We resisted. Somehow it would have felt too ordinary.

The “Secret Itinerary” costs Euros 315 per person, 00 39 041 520 9070.

Puritan Pleasure: Open houses [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times, April 1st, 2006

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If, like me, you relish taking post-prandial strolls around your neighbourhood purely so you can peer into people’s front rooms before they have shut the curtains for the night, the appeal of one of the US’s most popular Sunday pastimes will be obvious.

Open-housing is about more than keeping an eye on the property market. It provides a sheen of respectability to what is little more than glorified snooping. It’s also free and can be enjoyed by all ages.

It works this way: over coffee on Sunday morning you peruse the Open Houses pages of your local paper and map out your day. All the houses for sale are open from 2pm to 4.30pm, so other plans need to be scheduled accordingly. Many of the listings include a line- drawing of the home in question – vulgar photography is reserved for houses of the lower order.

There are different types of pleasures to be had from prying into other people’s homes. There is the bittersweet gratification of finding that the multimillion-dollar, architect-designed show stopper with its wrap-around deck and outdoor hot tub is the stuff of your dreams; and there is smug superiority, as in “I can’t believe someone with such obvious wealth has such appalling taste.”

In the part of California where I indulge this hobby the architectural styles range from modernist hill houses with great views of San Francisco, to delightful, shingled craftsman homes with their dark panelling and built-in cabinetry.

There is also fun to be had in discovering what the professional “home stagers” have been up to. Their presence is obvious in any house in the $2m-plus bracket in the Bay Area – spot the potted succulents on the porch, the tray of wine and (plastic) nibbles and the covetable linen on the plumped-up beds – I have even seen a guitarist strumming in a rose garden as the hordes poke their collective nose into the guest cottage.

What can I say? Legitimate voyeurism: it beats snoozing with the Sunday supplements.

Donald Gunn: A Need to Measure Success [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 11, 2004

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Never underestimate the importance of awards to the advertising industry. Anecdotes abound of the lengths agencies will go to to secure a prize. One French network promised each of its creative directors a share in a €1.5m ($1.77m) bounty if their work made it into one league table, and a Brazilian agency chief ordered his creative team to come in at the weekend “so that they could do the ads for Cannes”.

In some quarters there is a cynical belief that certain campaigns are created with a view to winning awards for agencies rather than driving sales for clients, or that competition juries favour big-budget and cutting-edge campaigns with which mainstream viewers are rarely familiar. None of which will, of course, prevent the industry’s creative tribes from descending on Cannes next month for the Golden Lion advertising awards festival, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Donald Gunn knows more than most about awards. Once dubbed “the man with the best job in advertising”, Mr Gunn, who spent three decades at Leo Burnett, has latterly dedicated his career to analysing creativity and tracking the best-regarded advertising and the agencies or countries which produce it. The results appear every November in the Gunn Report, probably the most respected, and certainly the best-read, measure of excellence in an industry obsessed by rankings.

So, to what does he attribute this compulsion to be honoured? “In every field there is an appetite to be the best and for that to be celebrated,” he says. He concedes that, compared with other creative industries such as music or design, advertising has a disproportionate number of awards. But their role in powering the business is fundamental, he says.

For agencies, awards create a virtuous circle: they establish reputation, attract talent and bring in new business. Even so, Mr Gunn believes they should be seen only as the icing on the cake. “Agencies should set out to create the best advertising for their clients. Winning an award is a bonus.”

The benefits may not be so obvious for advertisers. “Awards are not a priority for advertisers, but they do want the best, most original advertising, so an award provides reassurance: they are getting good work and they have good people at their agency.”

Mr Gunn has also examined the relationship between creativity and effec tiveness and has proved to his satisfaction that award-winning advertising increases market share. A study of 400 of the most-awarded campaigns in the world between 1992 and 1995 found that 86.5 per cent of the ads were associated with market success. In other words, ads with award-winning qualities were two and a half times more likely to achieve, or surpass, clients’ objectives. Leo Burnett reprised Mr Gunn’s study in 2002 and unveiled similar results: four out of five award-winning campaigns achieved positive market results for clients.

Mr Gunn’s insights stem from his experience as an agency creative chief and from the phenomenal databank that forms the backbone of the Gunn Report, launched in 1999.

While at Leo Burnett, Mr Gunn founded two institutions that still set creative benchmarks today: the Great Commercials Library, started in 1986, and the Global Product Committee. The latter involves a commitment that many agencies would find daunting: every three months, 20 of Leo Burnett’s top creative staff from around the world meet for a week to view the entire network’s output. Ads are scored and feedback is given.

To compile his report, Mr Gunn combines the winner lists from 52 national, regional and global award schemes (32 for television, 20 for print). But, just like Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, he has never revealed which ones they are. He says this is to avoid harming the contests that are not included (though it also makes it impossible for agencies to challenge the rankings). After much data-crunching, the league tables emerge – including top commercials, top agencies, top production companies and top countries – as well as a Showreel of the Year featuring the 100 most-awarded campaigns in the world.

Given Mr Gunn’s influence in the industry, one wonders if his rankings have ever been questioned, or if he has been offered incentives to skew results. “Much to my amazement nobody has ever seriously challenged the tables,” he says, “although there have been the usual queries about methodology”. A US network once hired a headhunter to find out which awards had made it into the report; it failed.

“There was a theory at one point that if you threw money at the awards and entered the maximum number of shows, you would come out well,” he says. “In fact, the agencies that spend the most are often those who are entering mediocre work.”

He has his own view about what makes an award-winning ad. He believes an agency’s shared vision and passion for good work – as well as a willingness to take risks – are more important than incentives (such as bonuses), or even strong leadership.

He has identified 12 “master-formats” which, he says, are a good starting point for delivering a selling idea in an engaging way: “Sitting down with a blank sheet to create an ad can be a lonely, scary process.” Approaches such as the testimonial or the celebrity endorsement can dramatise a proposition. Mr Gunn will flesh out his master-formats concept at a presentation in Cannes this year.

Mr Gunn has also spotted a welcome rise in creative standards across the world. “Three years ago, there were 22 markets represented in the 100 best commercials reel. Last year there were 28. Countries such as Canada, Mexico and India are moving up,” he says. Australia, he notes, has regressed since its 1980s heyday, while China has improved as Hong Kong talent has moved into Shanghai and Beijing.

This year, Mr Gunn is handing on the bulk of the work involved in compiling the report to his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. But, before then, he must complete possibly his most ambitious project to date: an online library of award-winning advertising he has tracked since 1962. “It will deliberately be the smallest online commercials library because it will only feature the best – and all the best – ads from around the world,” he says. The Gunn Report Library will be launched by BEAM TV this summer.

Mr Gunn claims he is taking it easy, but his diary tells another story. He has just returned from an advertising conference in Argentina, and later this year will attend festivals in Asia and eastern Europe, as well as Cannes. For this “awards supremo”, it is business as usual.

California Dreams: Norah and Norman Stone [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 27th 2006

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Six of the eight bedrooms in Norah and Norman Stone’s mansion have been given over to art. But the San Francisco power couple assure me that the encroaching collection has required no real sacrifice on their part and no significant alterations to their beautiful Arthur Brown-designed house.

“I was actually pleased to have the housekeeper move out and be replaced by Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney,” says Norah, referring to the top floor where they now keep several pieces by the two artists.

A tour of Stones’ home, which has views from Presidio Heights over the city and the bay, reveals just how inventive they have been when it comes to sharing their living space with their art. What is particularly striking is the juxtaposition of the many uncompromisingly modern pieces with the more traditional, elegant surroundings, originally created by the renowned interior designer Frances Elkins.

In the entrance hall, against a background of sumptuous antique Chinese wallpaper, hangs “La Poupée” (1938) by Hans Bellmer. One of Joseph Beuys’ ”vitrine” works, housed in a rectangular glass case on legs, stands nearby. “You don’t see many of those in people’s hallways,” quips Norman. Tucked into a closet – the Stones admit they struggled to find the right place – is a sound piece by Stephen Vitiello that includes recordings made in the World Trade Center in 1999.

In the relatively small, formal dining room two giant wall pieces by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog” (1996) and “Cheeky” (2000) face off against a large Andy Warhol self-portrait, “Fright Wig” (1986). Strolling through the living room you spot a familiar image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee – Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1940).

The Stones like to contextualise their collection by including pieces by a previous generation of avant-garde artists that influenced many of the younger names in their collection. Thus, on an upper floor, Robert Gober’s “Pair of Urinals” (1987) echoes Duchamp’s succès de scandale, “Fontaine” (1917).

Norman, who is president of his family’s foundation, explains the rationale behind their acquisitions: “The wisest thing to do is to know your end-game,” he says. “We collect museum-quality pieces so that in the end they will go to museums.” (The Stones have ties to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Tate Modern, among others.) “Our mission is to act differently.”

Some of the work is highly provocative. But, says Norman, who is a psychologist by training, and who works regularly as a psychological counsellor with young people at a local community centre: “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them but they exist and should not be shirked.”

As one explores the house, it’s clear that every possible nook and cranny has been exploited as space to show art. In a labyrinthine series of rooms in the basement one happens across Keith Tyson’s 2002 Turner Prize-winning “Bubble Chambers”. Also below ground-level, a long whitewashed room acts as a minimalist gallery with works by Donald Judd and Richard Serra as well as one of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings.

Even the garage, which houses his ‘n’ hers Porsches, has been put to use. When Norman decided to buy “Electric Earth”, a video piece by Doug Aitken, he realised the five screens and 1,200 ft of space it required would pose something of a challenge. The solution was a linear version of the piece, created by the artist, with just one screen which drops down for viewing once the cars have been relegated to the street.

Maintenance issues inevitably arise with such an eclectic collection. A Jeff Koons work, “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985), which consists of two Spalding basketballs in a tank of distilled water, requires a regular water change. Unfortunately the person who had been performing this task for the Stones – and was familiar with the 13-page manual explaining the necessary procedure – recently left town. Norman shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience. “We’ll find someone else,” he says.

In any case, the couple have bigger issues on their mind. At their Napa Valley estate, where they also manage a vineyard, they are drilling below ground into the limestone to create a 5,000 sq ft cave of exhibition space. Also in the planning stages is a James Turrell skyspace which is being built into the swimming pool. Norah says when it is completed LED lighting will allow you to change the colour of the sky.

The Stones insist they always find solutions when they want to install a new work of art. Still, the “art cave” is perhaps an admission that their city home has finally reached full capacity.