David Baker Architects

2020 Visions PDF IconDbp-02'92-sf-2020-visions

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by Marina Gordon
SF: The Magazine of Design and Style
February 1992

The Bay Area, perhaps more than any other region in the country, is obsessed with preserving the heritage of its built environment. This concern dictates that the local landscape change little with the passage of time. But most architects, along with being eminently practical, have a strong bent towards innovation.

SF commissioned five local architects to free their creativity from real-life restraints and challenged them to focus their sights three decades into the future, on the year 2020, and envision the condition of the house, the city and the suburb. Given little more than those instructions and the compelling blank page, they went to work.

The architects—David Baker, Mark Horton, KOBEOU, Mark Mack and Jim Jennings—acted as trend forecasters and designed living spaces, envisioning how new technology, environmental issues and social values will alter the way we live and build. Each holds firm beliefs about what we'll need to address in the future—and they give us a dramatic range of possibilities, from the plausible to the fanciful. But the works speak for themselves most eloquently, as they invite us to contemplate the future.


From the detritus of a car-oriented culture sprouts a neighborhood of the future.

We've all been stuck in freeway traffic jams that seemed to stand at a complete halt. In San Francisco architect David Baker's version of the Bay Area in the future, that jam would be permanent—as an exhibit in the Museum of the 20th Century. Our fossil fuel having been exhausted, the resource-depleting private automobile will be as much part of Baker's 2020 society as the horse and buggy is a part of today's.

The car's near-extinction is not the tragedy that we might imagine, however, for in Baker's future, the two-car household simply isn't necessary or even desired. But this is only one result of Baker's optimistic scenario, which envisions technology that is now in its infancy as the catalyst for great changes in how we will live.

Baker, the 41-year-old architect behind Berkeley's Bison Brew Pub, Cafe Milano and Cody's Cafe, as well as the much-praised affordable housing units, Park View Commons in San Francisco, obviously delights at the thought of the year 2020: "The professional is obsolete in the future. Apple Computer and McDonald's have merged and written a whole series of artificial-intelligence programs that replace, among other people, architects. Instead there's McArchitect. Anyone could be their own architect because the specialized knowledge you go to an architect for, like code-solving, is available from a handheld computer. Lawyers are replaced by McMediator."

The nine-to-five regimentation that we take for granted today will also be a casualty of technology, Baker forecasts. He sees the current trend toward working at home, or not in a traditional office, becoming the norm over the next 30 years. "The major tax on the infrastructure is that everyone goes to work at the same time and they go home at the same time," he says. "I think that's one reason people like the notion of telecommuting (going to work by switching on a computer, fax machine and phone, essentially) and working at home."

And home, more than likely, will be in the city, which Baker thinks will grow rapidly as travel becomes more expensive. He feels certain that the suburbs will be almost desolate, due in part to the obsolescence of the automobile. A compromise between city and country would therefore no longer be necessary or practical. "This notion that the central city is going to be abandoned is probably wrong because a lot of the reasons that drive the suburbs—going out and working on white-collar jobs somewhere—could disappear," he says.

People will still need to get around, though, even if only within their neighborhood, so Baker invented small, solar- and electric-powered "automotricycles" to supplement mass transportation. "These are essentially for going for groceries," Baker says. Nancy Whitcombe, Baker's associate who worked closely with him on the project, adds that automotricycles might be publicly owned: "In the city, an automotricycle would be more like the public-domain bicycle experiment in Amsterdam, where somebody drops it off, and the next person who needs it comes along and drives it away," she says. "And they'd be small and cheap, and they wouldn't be able to go very far."

As an energy-saving measure, and to ensure that traffic will move smoothly, the little vehicles would be towed behind larger bullet trains. "You could hook up in a whole line of these things electromagnetically and go along, then one car could break off to go on a smaller, local route if necessary," Whitcombe says.

If, as Baker posits, cities will be far more crowded and the car becomes an archaic curiosity, the logical sites for new development would be deserted freeways, which could be divided into lots and sold off individually (the proceeds of which could help to fund public housing). Baker designed three dwellings for different kinds of people who might populate the vacated freeways.

Maximal/Minimal House

In the Maximal/Minimal House, Baker took the Murphy bed to its extreme—every feature of the 16-by-16-foot Murphy Room folds out or serves multiple uses (the bathtub, for example, can be transformed into a couch; the sink rolls out to become a wet bar). He designed the Maximal/Minimal House for new people in town. "They're sort of a super SRO (single room occupancy)," says Baker, who knows what he's talking about: He's the architect behind Bay Area's first new SRO, soon to be under construction in Berkeley, in 40 years.

Instead of being conventional units that are stacked upon and beside each other, Baker envisions the Murphy Rooms structured as an adapted carnival ride, where each room can pivot and extend to be oriented, say, towards the sun, at the whim of the inhabitant. "We still have a few technical things to work out with this," Baker says.

Non-Nuclear Family House

A step up from the Maximal/Minimal House is the Non-Nuclear Family House, for "flexible families of the future." Baker sees the imperative of meeting the housing needs of single-parent families, and criticizes the glacial pace of developers in responding to it, which forces many people to put together an ad hoc co-housing. He suggests that a much better solution would have, for example, six parents and their children in a home designed specifically for their needs. In his prototype three-level structure, each level would be subdivided to provide individual sleeping lofts for the parents. In addition, the street level would have shops that the residents could use themselves or rent out, and the second tier would house common space, with such amenities as solar-heated couches.

The children would occupy the top level, where Baker has devised a couple of ingenious solutions to age-old problems: How can each child have his own space, and how do you get a kid to take a bath? He came up with Kids' Wombs for the children—small, egg-shaped capsules that are suspended in clusters in large nets. (And one can imagine the parental order if a child acts up: "Go to your womb!") "There's lots of appeal to this," says Baker. "I think most kids would take this little space and be happy with it, if only because it would be hard for adults to get into." As for bath time, Baker imagined a vertical version of a car wash called the Kidwash; from their play room, they'd just slide down a tube and get hosed off and deposited in a hot tub.

The daily lives of 2020's citizens will have changed as much as the places they live. Baker contends that all the tedious tasks that the workaday professional tends to now will be handled by machines, thus freeing people up to express their creativity. As a result, the most valued skills will not be business acumen, but artistic talents. Whitcombe hypothesizes, "We'll probably get something like artist-doctors and artist-lawyers, people who have original ideas about their professions." "Humans excel at originality," Baker adds. "I think craft and artisanship will come back because machines aren't creative."

He believes the current trend towards more appreciation for handmade objects will accelerate: "I think people really respond to that because they are apprehensive about change. They feel a lack of control in their lives." In a society where most people have access only to identical, mass-produced consumer goods, custom-made products will be increasingly appealing. "Things that have a human mark on them, things with imperfections, are always interesting," he says.

Artists, Baker thinks, will be the future's most revered citizens. And with their imaginations and the help of McArchitect they'll be able to build the most unique, elaborate homes. "The artist wants to live in his own piece of sculpture," Baker explains. "He comes up with a concept sketch and scans it into the computer, and the computer designs his house. The kind of restrictive codes we have nowadays are completely gone because everything is analyzed on an ongoing basis in terms of cost-effectiveness for the society." Baker fantasizes that an omniscient "Great Database in the Sky" will decide whether or not a proposed project will be of benefit to the community.

With the assistance of an artificial-intelligence architectural program, Baker predicts the artist will be the king of the road. Local sculptor Joe Slusky designed his future home as an ascension from the primitive to the cerebral.

McArchitect House

Whitcombe explains that the firm assumed the role of McArchitect and engaged local artist Joe Slusky to be their hypothetical client: "Joe did his drawings about what his vision of the thing was, and we tried to work from his descriptions and really build him the house that he wanted."

Slusky's imagined future home has very technical vertical stratification, running from he primal to the lofty: "Joe's idea is that the ground floor is very primitive, like in the Middle Ages. He has straw chicken hutches and large tortoises lying around. And at the top level he's made sculptures and machinery," Baker explains.

"You can imagine Joe in the future. When you talk to him he says things that are so original," Baker comments. And as society's values change, so might the rewards: "Today the guy who's the sleaziest, meanest and shrewdest lives in the biggest house. In the future, when originality will be the greatest value, the person who's most original is the person who's got the most impressive house."

When asked whether his future society is just a personal idea, Baker replies, "This may not be 2020, but things are changing a lot socially. We've obviously been really tongue-in-cheek about this, predicting the future, but this is the way I see things going. You could view California as the cultural center of the universe right now." He is careful, however, to add a caveat culled from the past: "There was a think tank in 1968 with all the most intelligent, creative futurologists, who sat down and predicted the future—and even they missed pocket calculators and personal computers."

This is an excerpt from the article "2020 Visions." The entire article is no longer available.

From the detritus of a car-oriented culture sprouts a neighborhood of the future.

Baker responded to the growing need for single-parent-family housing with the Non-Nuclear Family House, which provides for many parents and their children (who sleep in the brightly colored egg-shaped Kids' Wombs on the top floor).

With the assistance of an artificial-intelligence architectural program, Baker predicts the artist will be the king of the road. Local sculptor Joe Slusky designed his future home as an ascension from the primitive to the cerebral.

An amorphous Murphy Room, in which each feature folds in/out as needed.

Atop an urban freeway, David Baker envisions a museum that exhibits relics of the past (including traffic jams, airplanes and cows), a unit of flexible Murphy Rooms, non-nuclear family housing and an artist's dream home.