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A Space for Living: Region and Nature in the Bay Area, 1939-1969

  • Author(s): Allen, Peter Albert
  • Advisor(s): Groth, Paul
  • et al.

In the decades around World War II, the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California rapidly evolved into a more complex urban region. A diverse group of architects, landscape architects, and urban planners recognized the social and environmental issues inherent in this regional city. Their vision to combine modernist design with regional inspirations from nature, enacted at the regional scale, gave birth to an "arc of regional modernism" in mid-century American urbanism and architecture.

This vision of regional modernism arose in the 1930s when a group of architects and landscape architects combined ideas from the Modern Movement with inspirations from Bay Area natural landscapes. Often viewed as a unique contrast to the International Style, their philosophy of environmental design was instead an integral part of a modernist architecture more varied than typically understood.

The architecture and urban planning group Telesis presented a vision of urban regional growth--inspired by both Lewis Mumford and CIAM--that included modernist urban renewal and regional urban growth control. Telesis laid the foundations for the Bay Area's legacy in both urban renewal and the natural open space preservation of the greenbelt.

The Safeway Corporation's evolving designs for the postwar supermarket demonstrate how one grocery store chain used modern architecture to promote an image of the modern corporation and then used regionalist architectural motifs to obscure the realities of large-scale food distribution.

Better understood as regional modernists, women such as Catherine Bauer Wurster, Dorothy Erskine, Geraldine Knight Scott, and Elizabeth Mock played a substantial role in supporting and tempering the spread of modernism while demonstrating the importance of women in some of environmentalism most significant urban accomplishments. A case study of Bauer presents her history in environmental conservation and regional planning.

Finally, the events at People's Park in Berkeley in 1969 demonstrate the decline of the arc of regional modernism. Two visions of incorporating nature into the urban fabric collided when the top-down planning vision of regional modernism clashed with the efforts of young designers to create a more collaborative, community-based movement in architecture and planning.

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