the evolving san francisco

SF Market Embarcadero
On Friday night, the rain came down hard. My son’s Saturday morning soccer game in Concord, was cancelled. It’s been a wet, wet winter here in northern California. So, instead of having a lie-in, I decided last-minute to jump on a train to San Francisco, for a day of sketching. The sun was coming out. I don’t actually go to San Francisco very often – the last sketching outing there was in 2017! – perhaps I think I have seen it all, it’s a long way to go for a day out without a plan, I’m always left wanting more, and as I get older my feet hurt more from marching around cities as I’ve always done. Then I go, and I remember how different it is from Davis, I remember how much I love true cities, proper urban environments, I remember that I really love San Francisco. This city is changing; it’s changed even since I first started going there, taller buildings are going up, people and places are being priced out of town, but change is inevitable. If cities stayed the same, San Francisco and all its neighbourhoods would not be recognizable as the ones we know today. The scene above, for example, at the corner of Market and Embarcadero looking toward the iconic Ferry Building, looked utterly different until the early 1990s. There used to be an enormous double-decker elevated freeway passing right in front of this view, the ‘Embarcadero Freeway’, a hated blight on the city (read about it on the SF Chronicle site). Built in the 1950s and controversial from the start, the freeway linked both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. In 1986 the people of San Francisco were asked whether it should be demolished; voters voted ‘no’ and it stayed up (goes to show, what do the public know). Then the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake happened, seriously damaging the freeway, and that decided things for everyone. The Embarcadero is a lot nicer now. I started my day at the Ferry Building where I got my little ‘bombolini’ from the lady who sells nice Italian-style pastries, I bought a book of travel stories from the Book Passage, and then I stood on the corner of Market in a nice shaded spot with the my sketchbook. Many of those old streetcars passed me by, some of which originally came from far away, such as Chicago or Milan. This orange and green one used to trundle along the streets of Los Angeles. I took care not to stand too close to the curb, in case buses banged into me from behind, but that was the best vantage point so that neither the yellow sign nor the palm trees blocked the Ferry Building’s clock tower. It’s better than a big elevated freeway.
Blue Hydrant Market
Here is a blue fire hydrant I spotted on Market. You don’t see many blue ones around here. It looked pretty hastily painted.
SF 181 Fremont

The biggest changes lately though have been the addition of a whole clan of skyscrapers to the are South of Market (SoMa). they are going up so fast I cannot keep up with their names. This one for example took some finding out. The building to the right is Salesforce Tower, the new tallest building in San Francisco which was not quite yet finished when I last sketched it. On the right is the older Millennium Tower (built presumably a couple of decades ago if naming convention holds, though that doesn’t account for the Millennium Falcon, although Correllia probably has a different calendar to Earth, and it was a long time ago and far, far away). I stood on Mission and looked up squinting to draw this. Sunlight reflected from those windows on the Millennium Tower; I was worried I might melt if hit at the right angle, like those cars in London beneath the Walkie-Talkie. I didn’t know the name of this building, it was so new, and it doesn’t appear on Google maps yet. With the whole South of Market Transbay project, new glass and metal skyscrapers are flying up all over the place. The idea of skyscrapers on such earthquake-prone ground as San Francisco was a quiver-inducing prospect until fairly recently, but I guess the engineers are better at solving those conundrums. I discovered the name of this building much alter, after some research online: ‘181 Fremont’. 181 Fremont? That’s it? Not the ‘Upright Protractor’? the ‘Union Jack-knife’? The ‘Alien’s Umbrella?’ I think San Francisco needs to take a leaf out of London’s book and give their new skyscrapers silly and not-particularly-descriptive names. I mean even ‘Salesforce Tower’, what is that? Ok Salesforce might sponsor it but come on San Francisco, come up with a funny name. Perhaps that is what we have lost, as the city changes, the ability for the local humans to come up with plausibly imaginative nicknames for tall buildings. Perhaps they feel, as I am sure Londoners do, that once you start nicknaming tall buildings, you have to come up with nicknames for all of them, even boring ones, and it’s just too much effort. 181 Fremont it is then.

Advertisements

The South Bank Show

South Bank Feb2019
Every time I go back to London, my family members have grown older, a little bit. With the adults it’s slower, less noticeable, while with the children it’s a much more visible change. I am now the classic “look how tall you are!” uncle. My uncle jokes are also the best uncle jokes in the world. I too have grown; not taller, rather I have encroached into traditional green belt lands. See, uncle jokes. London on the other hand changes faster than I can think. When I left in 2005, the Gherkin (aka ‘the Erotic Gherkin’) was still the new shocking addition to the City’s skyline, pointing like a stubby fishnet bullet at the sky. The older NatWest building still dominated the Square Mile, sufficiently far from the unchanging dome of St. Paul’s (though that too has changed since I left, having been scrubbed of its layer of grey pollution-particles, so much it now gleams as Wren intended). One by one newer buildings started to be approved, all with their pre-approved nicknames: the Heron, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Dodger’s Kerchief, the Ocelot Spleen, the Snood, and of course the Wizard’s Winkle. I might have made some of those up but you would be hard pressed to figure out which. London’s skyline is starting to resemble less a city and more a manual of Yoga positions. I don’t even know what some of the new ones being built are called (if only there was some way of finding out, some kind of instant source of all global information right at my fingertips!), but change is a good thing, I suppose. I never wanted London to stand still and miss me after I moved away, I wanted London to enjoy its life, meet other buildings, move on.
View from Tate Modern Feb2019

It was a lovely day when I went out sketching on the banks of the Thames. I miss the Thames more than I miss any part of London. I don’t have a Thames here in Davis. I used to come down to the Thames to have a look at it, and contemplate, and be pensive. Sounds stupid now I say it like that. You know like in films and TV shows when the main character has a lot on their mind and they go and look at the Hudson River or stand on the pier at Coney Island (all films and TV shows are set in New York), that was me, coming to the Thames, standing on the South Bank near Waterloo, looking at the Thames. I think I just like watching water move from left to right. Maybe it reminds me of the old Thames Television screen, which would come on just before Rainbow, and I always liked Rainbow. Geoffrey out of rainbow died recently. I met him when I was a kid, at Brentford’s football ground, he drew me a picture of Zippy. It wasn’t a super detailed picture of Zippy but I could tell it was meant to be Zippy. Unless it was meant to be a picture of himself and I misinterpreted it, or a picture of me. Either way, I always wondered what Zippy would be like as a modern-day politician. Yes, it is extremely easy to imagine that isn’t it (it’s even easier to imagine Bungle). When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London years ago I drew a picture of Zippy with Boris Johnson’s hair. A few years later, Johnson and his friend Joanna ‘George’ Lumley, had this crazy idea of building a new bridge across the Thames, right at the spot where I drew the sketch above. It was to be a ‘Garden Bridge’, covered in trees and plants and closed at night and on special corporate events such as when Rod Jane and Freddy would need to perform their Greatest Hits. If I recall, the plan was to build it “up above the streets and houses, everyone can see it smiling over the sky”. Being pedestrian only, it would not alleviate traffic, It would require cutting down scores of trees on the South Bank as well as blocking the view of the city with all its Yoga-position skyscrapers from much of the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge. Change is a good thing I suppose, but this was a change that really didn’t need to happen, at least not right here. When the pedestrian Millennium Bridge was built, it was visually unobtrusive and also in a place that had needed a crossing connecting St Paul’s with the new Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe (I well remember the circuitous routes before). Also, it wobbled, meaning those crafty Cockneys could re-christen it the ‘Wobbly Bridge’, calling it that for many years even after the Wobble had been fixed and the joke had really lost its steam. The Garden Bridge was an expensive vanity project that probably wouldn’t even wobble. In the end, after millions being spent and many Bungles, the Garden Bridge was finally scrapped. I’m glad, and I think Geoffrey would have been glad too.

I sat on a bench by the Thames and drew in the sunshine. It’s one of my favourite spots in the whole world, even with the growing metropolis sprouting up across the river. A man stopped to have a look at my sketch, enthusiastically asking me what I do with them. “I colour them in,” I said, and he laughed. People often ask what my sketches are for, which is a fair question, since they could be for sale or to make into postcards or maybe I am out looking for views to dismantle with expensive vanity projects, but the answer is always the same – it’s because I love to draw. I just love drawing, so I have to just keep drawing. This city is worth drawing and drawing and drawing, and then drawing more. This city changes so quickly. After this sketch, I went to the Tate Modern and up to the tenth floor of that new building next door, to sketch the City from above. That is one of my favourite new viewing spots in London, although the crowded elevator means you need to book some additional vacation time if you want to go up there. I decided to colour in only the sky and the river, leaving the city itself uncoloured like in the opening credits of a certain TV show I used to watch as a kid, the large tower of Tate Modern in the foreground. Tate Modern used to be Bankside Power Station, designed by the same guy who made the phone box (I’ve talked about him before). I love listening to tourists talking to each other when visiting London, hearing their enthusiasm for the city. As I looked out over the skycrapers I though about the previous times I had sketched it, and as I sketched I thought that this would be a very good point to include some of those older sketches in this part of the blog post. I hope you have enjoyed this little trip to the South Bank with me. Next time I go back, it will look different again.

take me down to the riverover the thames to cannon street
by the banks of the thamesSt Pauls from Tate Modern
Waterloo panorama
The River Thames

upstreet downstreet san francisco

SF filbert st
Here then are the final few sketches from last month’s San Francisco overnighter. These were drawn on the Sunday, after getting up and walking down to Mara’s Italian Pastries on Columbus for a delicious (but messy!) Cannoli and a huge pastry that looked like a chocolate croissant but was much denser, took me all day to finish. It was so good. So here I am in North Beach, and by the way on June 3rd I am holding a workshop in this very place all about perspective, called “Perspectives of San Francisco”. Check out the Urban Sketchers site for details of other workshops in the 10×10 series in the SF Bay Area. I wanted a bit of practice, because sketching cities with hills is not a simple task when it comes to perspective. I stood on Filbert Street next to Washington Square Park and sketched past the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, looking up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower.
SF Columbus Cafe
Here were are now on Green Street, across the road from where I sketched in November. I like this set of signs leading up the hill, and I had intedned to colour them in but in the end could not muster the energy. I love this old Columbus Cafe sign. the greens and reds around the edges are mostly faded in the sun. Next door is a place called “Pete’s” which of course I just had to eat lunch in. I had lovely eggs benedict there, I definitely recommend.
SF salesforce tower
If you go down to San Francisco these days you are sure for a big surprise. The newest addition to the skyline is a massive skyscraper visible from what feels like everywhere being constructed down in the SoMa district, South of Market. It dwarfs the TransAmerica Pyramid. It will ultimately be crowned with thousands of LED lights to display images, created by artist Jim Campbell. This impressive (and thin) new building is called (wait for it) “Salesforce Tower”. Yes, “Salesforce”. Sales, force. Sales. Force. Not exactly “Empire State” or even “Transamerica Pyramid”. I get that buildings must be names after corporations but do the corporations have to have dull names? Salesforce Tower sounds like a grey block located on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Slough, not the leading light over one of the most iconic cities in the world. If this was London it would have a hilarious nickname by now too, like the Erotic Gherkin or the Cheesegrater or the Vampire’s Collar. I’m sure the fun-loving fellows of Frisco (I know, don’t use that name, but alliteration here trumps acceptable usage) will think up a more interesting name. I sketched this from Market Street looking up, the perspective of drawing tall buildings is one I’d like to work on a bit more. Hey there is a great chapter by Japanese artist Kumi Matsukawa in my book ‘Creative Sketching Workshops’ all about drawing tall buildings. I’d recommend that highly (all puns always intended on petescully.com).
SF hydrant

But let’s get back down to earth. I love a hydrant, well here are two. One is near, the other is far away. This is a good example of perspective. Near, far away. I love rusty hydrants. Gives them character. It makes it feel like a Used Universe. This little guy dates back to 1909 if the date on its side is to be believed. He is found in the heart of the financial district.

And then, I boarded a train back to Davis. It was a tiring couple of days hanging out in the City, and while I always enjoy the change of scenery, I’m really starting to get a “done-this-all-before” feeling. A new challenge is needed…

’tis grand to be in new york

NYC Grand Central
Did I mention how cold New York was? It was so cold, even brass monkeys wore gloves. I don’t even get that. It was so cold, I had to open the fridge to warm my hands, no I said that one last time. It was so cold, I lost the ability to think of anything ever. There, that works.

But it wasn’t too cold to sketch.

I tell a lie, it definitely 100% was too cold to sketch, but for the sake of it, for the sake of urban sketching as a thing, I jolly well did it, because, well I’m not in New York every day. Sadly.

This was done on the Saturday afternoon, the second coldest day of the trip (oh wow, the 14th was even colder, it was so cold that it made Frosty the Snowman look like the Human Torch, see I’m just not very good at these analogies and things, I don’t know if that’s really what I do. I would be terrible in one of those schoolyard “yo mama is so fat…” contests you always hear about, I would be like, “yeah, shuttup, you mug, stop being sizeist” or something. Anyway back to the sketch. Yes, I stood in the sub-sub-freezing-cold weather and sketched the scene above. In the goshdarned cold. Oh I was wrapped up warm, unbelievably warm. Multiple layers of clothing, two jackets, gloves, thick hat, thermal longjohns, two pairs of socks, look I’m not going to describe my whole wardrobe here (stripey underpants, ok?) but I was pretty warm. But that cold, man. Amazingly my uni-ball signo um-151 pen held up pretty well and did not let me down. I did all the inkwork except for about half the windows on the skyscraper (it’s the Chrysler Building for those of you who have not heard of New York before) and some of the windows on that other building in the background (I believe the phrase that I uttered when I got to that part was ‘sod that’), and then added the paint once I got inside somewhere warm (I went to an igloo on Pluto). This is Grand Central Station.

Sorry, sorry, I meant Grand Central Terminus. What? ‘Terminal’? Right ok, it’s Grand Central Terminal. Only an out of town bumpkin like me would call it ‘Station’. In fact I think it’s one of those things whereby they go around telling people it’s ‘Station’ just so that when people repeat it to New Yorkers they can get laughed at. Actually I think none of this is  true at all, this is in fact entirely a conversation I had in my head while sketching, in fact the imaginary conversation turned a bit ugly at one point and I had to break up the imaginary out-of-towner who was all, “you think you’re better than me, huh” and the imaginary New Yorker who had dropped his imaginary banter and moved straight into an imaginary aggressive “huh, wiseguy, huh, well things are gonna get real ‘terminal’ for you soon buddy”, and well I just left them to it frankly, this completely imaginary conversation that didn’t happen. I went indoors, and sketched in there instead.
NYC Grand Central Terminal

I did wonder where Avengers Tower was, since my New York is so bound to the imaginary. Being inside the immensely impressive Grand Central reminded me of that scene in Avengers when Thor and Hulk take out those Chitauri, and then Hulk punches Thor sideways. It also reminded me a lot of the Lego Marvel video game, the bit where you have to fight Sandman. I liked standing in here sketching, and I had intended on adding colour as well, but the day was moving along fast and I wanted to get back and go for dinner. I was told afterwards that there is an amazing place in the downstairs food court for beer and oysters, and I wish I had tried it, but that just gives me an excuse to go back to New York. Hey, do we even need an excuse to go back to New York? It’s an amazing city, with more sketching to be done there than I can possibly imagine (and yeah, punchline coming, I can imagine quite a bit).

(Except when talking about the cold)

the pool of london

hms belfast

This is almost it for London sketches, I promise you. But not quite yet. These were sketched down at the Pool of London – that stretch of the Thames after London Bridge, the true ancient heart of London the river city. It was an absolutely freezing cold day, bitter and icy, with snow still blasted to surfaces even here in central London, days after the massive blizzard. The scene above is of HMS Belfast, the battleship-turned-tourist spot permanently moored in the Pool of London, with the ancient Tower of London to the left and the less ancient Tower Bridge to the right. The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in the late eleventh century as a symbol of the Normans’ military control of the capital, while Tower Bridge  was built at the end of the nineteenth century because people needed to get from one side of the Thames to the other.

I found this great spot to sketch all three, on a little covered outcrop overlooking thethe gherkin Thames, with benches and shelter from the wind. I sat down to sketch, got my moleskine and pens out, started to sketch and then within three minutes a couple of men from India came up and asked me not to sit there. They would be filming there, and needed me to move. I saw that there were some other people there with them, and one had a camera (not a film or TV camera, but just a fancy hand-held). “How long will you be?” I asked. I didn’t want to lose my opportunity to sketch this scene. They both answered at the same time, one said “ten minutes”, one said “half an hour to an hour”.

“Which is it?” I replied. “Half an hour at least,” they said. I told them I wanted to sketch here, it’s a public place.

“You can come back another time, the ship’s not going anywhere,” one said back to me.

“But I  am,” I said. “Do you have a permit to film here?”

I know that you need a permit if you’re out filming and require the public to not go into public places. Again they both answered at the same time: one said “yes, the other said “no”. I asked to see it. No response. I knew they didn’t have one. 

“Look,” I conceded, “I’ll give you fifteen minutes, and then I’m coming back and I will sketch here.” Thankfully they agreed; it was either that or call a policeman to sort out who has what rights to be where. I went off and did a quick ten-minute sketch of the Gherkin (see right), then went and warmed my hands up in a bookstore, before resuming my spot to sketch HMS Belfast. They were filming some romantic kissing scene, but they didn’t object when I came back for my turn. While I sketched, several people came along and stood in the way to take photos and look at the view, and I didn’t mind because they had every right to.  It is an amazing view.

london bridge

And this I sketched shortly before then, at London Bridge. This looks towards the heart of the City of London – you can see Tower 42 and the golden-topped column of the Monument there. That column, built by Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666, would, if it fell over, reach the exact spot in Pudding Lane where the fire began. Presumably Wren kept that fact to himself, lest gangs of curious seventeenth-century scallywags attempt to push it over to find out. There has been a bridge on this spot called London Bridge since the time of the Romans, and yes, previous incarnations did sometimes fall down (or burn down, usually). This particular London Bridge dates back to the 1970s, when the previous one (which was not falling down, but sinking) was sold to a man in Arizona who needed it to sell postcards.

I however was utterly freezing. After these sketches I went and had a nice hot chicken pie.

shard times

the shard

This is the Shard, a brand new skyscraper under construction in London, near London Bridge. It’s called the Shard because the architect is a big fan of The Dark Crystal. It will be the tallest building in Britain when completed, and London’s skyline will be changed forever (or, until the next tall unusual building is finished, and there are more on the way in). Eventually it will look like a huge glass spike pointing at the clouds. I sketched it stood near London Bridge station after a morning out by the river with family, really cold but not as freezing as before. I had to draw quickly because I was off to meet my friend  up near Tottenham Court Road station (and I was about to discover just how different London looks now, and how much of central London is like a building site – much of Oxford Street appears to be gone! But there is a Chipotle on Charing Cross Road, which made me happy). I like to draw in-progress sketches of buildings, because once they are finished and iconic it’s fun to remember how they looked going up.