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BOOK REVIEW : Art and Mystery of Land Development : FROM THE GROUND UP: The Business of Building in the Age of Money <i> by Douglas Frantz</i> ; Henry Holt $21.95, 320 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I am an aesthete,” boasts architect Scott Johnson in the pages of “From the Ground Up,” a case study of commercial real estate development that focuses on the $150-million Rincon Center in San Francisco. “In the end,” says the doughty architect, “you have to trust instinct and talent and art and a little mystery.”

But, as we learn in Douglas Frantz’s account of the design and construction of an elaborate “mixed-use” complex on a pricey piece of San Francisco landfill, art is less important than money, and good luck counts more than “a little mystery.”

“Real estate developers are not business people in the traditional sense,” Frantz explains. “In their hearts, they are gamblers.”

Scott Johnson is prominently featured in “From the Ground Up,” but he is not the real hero. As Frantz allows us to understand, the architect is merely one player in the Byzantine game of money and power that passes for real estate development. At any particular moment, it may be the banker, the bureaucrat or the builder who is the architect’s patron--and, at every moment, it is the developer who sees the project to completion by alternately courting and bullying all of them.

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Frantz, a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of “Levine & Co.,” is a business reporter of real skill and sophistication, and he is adept at unraveling the tangled web of interest rates and tax credits and take-out loans out of which a multimillion-dollar project like the Rincon Center is spun. At its best, “From the Ground Up” is a primer on the sometimes baffling financial legerdemain that characterizes real estate development.

Still, Frantz is not above hyping the subject: “Real estate development was a lot like sex,” he cracks, “when it was good, it was really great and when it was bad, it was still pretty good.” And his prose imitates the rhapsodic language of architectural criticism when he regards the building itself.

“If Rincon Center were likened to a serpent, then the atrium would be the head, in which are located the senses, expression and brain,” he enthuses. “The remainder of the project could be muscular, smoothly curved and boldly coiled as it stretched across the city block and reached into the sky.”

Still, the genius of Frantz’s book is in the details. Day by day, dollar by dollar, he shows how the Rincon Center was shoehorned into compliance with the demands of a dozen “professional second-guessers.” He reveals the ingenious engineering and construction techniques by which a high-rise office tower and residential complex can be erected in earthquake country on fill, sand and clay. With the developers spending a million dollars a day on the project, the real wonder is that the Rincon Center was built at all.

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The National Park Service, for example, fretted over the preservation of a post office on the building site. The redevelopment agency demanded that “affordable housing” be included among the high-ticket apartments and condominiums.

By law, 1% of the budget was to be spent on public art--and the artist who was commissioned to design a fountain in the building lobby accused the developers of “criminal vandalism” when they embellished his work with ice sculpture at the opening ceremonies.

We learn, by the way, that most of the pejoratives in the vocabulary of the San Francisco design mafia derive from Southern California place names.

Thus, for example, local officials fretted over design features that “might cheapen the building, give it . . . ‘an L.A. look.’ ” And the particular color favored by the architect for the building exterior was dubbed and thus damned as “Santa Monica green” by redevelopment officials who tried to dictate the very color of the building itself.

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The lessons of “From the Ground Up” are not novel or surprising. Although architects are aesthetes, the aesthetics of our urban environment are dictated not by art but by money and politics. For the real estate developer, who is the true master builder of the late 20th Century, talent and art are just so much sentimental claptrap: “The two most important phrases in the lexicon of a project’s developers,” Frantz reminds us, “are ‘on schedule’ and ‘on budget.’ ”

Next: Richard Eder reviews “Mating” by Norman Rush (Alfred A. Knopf).


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