Emerald Fund President Oz Erickson recalls the first time he saw the unorthodox pea greens, mustard yellows and ultramarine blues his architect, David Baker, had selected for the outside of Emerald’s new SoMa Residences.
“I looked at it and said, ‘Over my dead body,’” remembered Erickson.
It was not the first time Erickson had balked at one of Baker’s designs. But, as usual, he eventually came around to the architect’s vision.
“It’s like his brain works at a slightly different kilter than most humans’ said Erickson. “We developers are pretty conservative folks. Sometimes we have to be brought along kicking and screaming.”
A quarter century since founding David Baker + Partners, the architect is one of the Bay Area’s most influential and widely copied designers. Specializing in infill housing, both market-rate and affordable, Baker’s small, 20-person practice is responsible for more than 3,000 housing units either built or under construction. Some 1,500 units more are in the pipeline, plus a smattering of hotels, office projects, and custom houses.
With a style that amounts to a sort of three-dimensional collage, Baker is known for using a wide variety of materials and textures, bays and gables, not to mention colors. In the development-averse Bay Area, the eclectic approach can help appease neighbors who object to the sort of massing needed to create density. In one project alone, Holliday Development’s Dutch-style townhouse Blue Star Corner in Emeryville, Baker used six facade materials to give the project visual variety.
“He takes what could be overwhelming, homogenous block and turns it into something more village-like,” said Mitchell Schwarzer, an architecture historian.
He’s also known for a restless creativity and intellect that can be alternately inspiring and infuriating. And at a time when architects and developers are desperate to be seen as more sustainable and greener than the next guy, Baker stands out as the real deal: He lives in the Mission District, bikes everywhere and gave up his last car, a diesel Volkswagen bug, in 2002.
He is known to show up on job sites on his bike to check on a lighting fixture — something that can be trickier when he is working on projects in Healdsberg or Truckee.
“When we go to Tahoe, we have got to figure out how to get Baker up there,” said Rick Holliday, founder of Holliday Development and longtime client of Baker.