Berlin, Germany: One street in a liveable city

March 23, 2012

On a recent visit to Berlin, we found ourselves on Lychener Strasse, a four or five block residential street in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. There’s nothing special about it – just a typical street in a relatively affluent but hardly exclusive area.

For me, it exemplified what makes Berlin such a liveable and enjoyable city. For starters, there are the residences themselves – the six storey apartment buildings that make up most of Berlin’s housing stock.

Somehow, they are proportioned to give a sense of density without blocking the sky. And behind each street-facing building is an inner courtyard and a second six-storey building, giving each residence an enclosed, sheltered space away from the street.

Then there is the kid-friendliness of Berlin. Playgrounds are everywhere, tucked in here and there, like this one:

The sheer variety of small businesses on this one anonymous street is impressive, at least for someone coming from San Francisco, where so many commercial blocks seem to feature nothing but restaurants, yoga studios, and nail salons. On Lychener Strasse’s five relatively short blocks, I noted these enterprises:

  • Furniture
  • Music
  • Children’s clothing
  • Photo studio
  • Adult clothing
  • Church
  • Groceries and sundries
  • Bicycles
  • Art studio
  • Physical therapy
  • Antiques
  • Unidentified office
  • School
  • Housewares and Gifts
  • Outdoor gallery and performance space

… Not to mention several cafes and restaurants — a variety typical of many Berlin streets on which I have walked. Not a one, from what I could see, was a chain store. Even if you’re not on the market for what these stores are selling, the varied looks of the storefronts make for visual interest, and a sense of commerce and community. And all those stores encourage pedestrian traffic, of course.

Berlin is dotted generously with parks and squares, and Lychener Strasse has Hemholtzplatz, which runs perpendicular to it for about four blocks:

Like most squares and public spaces in Berlin, it features not just walkways and benches but a couple of playgrounds, a ball court, and areas for picnics. These parks and squares are a pleasure to see and be in, any time of the year.

Finally, what makes for true urban liveability is the variety of nearby transit.

At the corner of Lychener Strasse and Danziger Strasse are a streetcar line, an U-bahn stop (elevated), and several bus lines, all connecting easily to the larger grid of well-maintained, generally on-time trains, buses, and streetcars that permeate Berlin and its suburbs.



Guest post: Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

January 9, 2012

Our friend Dotty DeCoster, a dedicated and thoughtful museum visitor, recently visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia and sends this report:

“We went up to Victoria for a few days over Christmas weekend and among other visitations and ramblings about town, visited the  Royal Museum, which is right on the waterfront next door to the Parliament Buildings (for B.C.).

“This museum remains what I think of as the quintessential natural history/provincial history museum.  I do not understand why the dioramas here are so much more lovely and interesting than those in other places — and I’ve seen dioramas in many, many places.  But they are.  Perhaps it has something to do with the way that each one is treated separately, based on its theme, and each is uncluttered while containing just the right number of exemplar artifacts?  I really don’t know.  But they are wonderful.  New to me was the ‘undersea’ display — one is in a model (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea style) undersea module.  It is a treasure, with interactive displays built in.  (The older displays have been added to with nearby hands-on opportunities, games, and activities.)

Ocean Station, Natural History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“But best of all, this museum has seating in every single display, along with devoting all of their “wasted space” (really well lit view corridors) to seating.  It is truly comfortable to be in this museum, to take time at each display.  The model town and the amazing space devoted to northwest coast native artifacts are not quite so well endowed — which is to say that there is seating, but it is not quite so integral to the display cases, and they were designed expecting people to climb stairs (but there are ways to avoid this).

Old Town, Modern History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“The museum has an inexpensive cafe, lots of restrooms, and a whole wing devoted to a comfortable seating area which serves as a living room for visitors to Victoria, whether or not you pay museum admission.  There’s also a store, but we didn’t have any trouble avoiding it.

“In terms of displays, although I like the whole museum and admire the taxidermy, the most important exhibits (in the sense of world wide interest) are certainly the Northwest coast native (aboriginal, I believe, is the Canadian term) collection.  The collection is extensive, inclusive, and well interpreted.  Low light, of course, because they are actual artifacts, not copies.

Kwakwaka’wakw Masks, First Peoples Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“Take your time, then go find a seat and rest, then come back.  It’s a lot to take in on one visit.  Escalators serve the exhibition floors.  (I like this — you can peek at things as you go from one floor to another.)”

Thanks, Dotty!

(Note: Photos were downloaded by me from the museum’s website)


Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco: bland does not equal comfortable

December 10, 2011

The people/entities/forces responsible for creating public space in San Francisco have done another mediocre job – this time with Sue Bierman Park on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building.

After a couple of years of work and almost two million dollars in renovations, the park looks like the “before” image in some kind of open space competition – a blank slate just waiting for benches, trees, paths, recreational spaces, and other amenities.

There’s no shelter from wind (in windy San Francisco), no shade or shelter from sun or rain (ditto), and there are very few benches for sitting.


There are these strange items – either an art piece or someone’s idea of clever seating, or both. All they’re good for is collecting rainwater.

There has been an ongoing discussion of installing a children’s playground at the park — in a neighborhood with none — but apparently not everyone with a say in the issue is in favor. Why there is even a controversy about this is beyond me – what’s not to like about a playground?


Calif. Academy of Sciences, part 3: A ghost of its former self

November 3, 2011

The California Academy of Sciences, as it now stands, is a big and busy place. On a typical day it teems with visitors, most of whom seem to be enjoying themselves.

In the midst of all that space and light and color, I suspect that most visitors don’t realize how much of that space is basically wasted – soaring ceilings that go up to nowhere – or how many of the exhibits are pale shadows of what the Academy had before it was remodeled to such fanfare several years ago.


Remembering the old Academy, I can’t help compare these cheesy, cheap biology exhibits to the old Life Through Time installation, which was immersive, engaging, and far more modern than any current exhibition.


The new Academy has vast floor space given over to static signage and rudimentary touch exhibits. The old Academy was stuffed with curiosities, cleverly designed and displayed. Its huge collections were readily accessible to anyone who was interested.


What’s really sad are the physical remnants of the old Academy that the new one is built around. The old Reptile and Amphibian Swamp, which featured a number of live alligators and crocodiles, now contains one forlorn albino alligator.


The railing, with its seahorse motif and bronze starfish atop the bannister, is a reminder of the old-fashioned skilled handiwork and well-thought-out whimsical design elements that were everywhere in the old building.


The African Hall is pretty much as it was – a quiet, dark, and contemplative space that also serves as a reminder of an earlier age of museums, when naturalists “collected” (shot and killed) animals, which were then mounted in dioramas with great skill and artistry. What puzzles me is why the Academy chose to keep its African Hall but not Wild California, an equivalent space filled with evocative dioramas of California wildlife. For better or worse, they don’t make exhibitions like that anymore; once Wild California was dismounted and destroyed, it was gone forever.

Nonetheless, the new Academy is wildly popular, with lines out the front door on weekends. Most visitors are from out of town, I think – another difference from the old Academy, which was one of those beloved institutions where kids who were taken there grew up and them brought their own kids in turn. The new Academy substitutes zing and flash for substance and love. Ultimately, there’s not that much there, which is a loss for us all.



Calif. Academy of Sciences Aquarium: Second-Rate Monterey

October 11, 2011

The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences tries very hard to be another Monterey Bay Aquarium – going for that immersive, “wow” experience that MBA does so well:

The problem is, the aquarium at the Academy is basically an afterthought, stuffed into the basement, with nowhere near the square footage of its southerly rival.

It’s disturbingly dark (as opposed to serenely dark), with no straight lines – which makes for a rather disorienting visitor experience. Not to mention difficult to navigate for anyone with mobility issues.

Low lighting often makes for signs and labels that are difficult to read.

Unlike Monterey Bay Aquarium, entire wings of which are bathed in natural light, the new downstairs Steinhart Aquarium is lit only by ceiling lights. Exhibits like the Tidepool, which ideally should attempt to reproduce or at least realistically represent the experience of a real tidepool at the open ocean, instead become something you might see next to a craps table in the eternal twilight of a Las Vegas casino.

For anyone who remembers the old Steinhart Aquarium, pre-Renzo Piano rebuild, the new aquarium is a sad experience. The old Steinhart was spacious, contemplative, and actually had far more tanks with a lot more sea life. It was, and felt like, an integral part of the Academy of Sciences – and its exhibitry related a lot more to the local environment of northern California. It was successful on its own terms without trying to be something it wasn’t.


Calif. Academy of Sciences: Everybody Line Up

September 14, 2011

I visited the California Academy of Sciences earlier this year for only the second time since the old complex of buildings was torn down and replaced with a new edifice designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in 2008. This visit confirmed my earlier first impression: the new Academy is long on crowds and, unlike the old Academy, short on absorbing exhibits.

It’s also a place of lines. Lines to get in the building…


Lines to get into the famous Rainforest exhibition…

Lines to get into the planetarium…

lines in the aquarium…

and lines to eat in the overpriced cafeteria…

It’s a huge building, but relatively little of it is given over to exhibit space. There’s a lot of open floor with high ceilings where visitors wander semi-aimlessly.

On the other hand, the new Academy is very popular – the lines are there not just because of poor design but because there are lots of visitors. Most of them, I suspect, are from out of town or moved to SF after the old Academy was torn down, so they have no basis of comparison. In any case, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

For contrast, here is a Peter Hartlaub SF Gate blog entry, with photos, on the old Academy.


Pinnacles National Monument: Nature made accessible

September 6, 2011

After a hiatus of several months, I’ve returned to this blog for more discussions of visitor comfort and accessibility in public spaces. Thanks to everyone for your patience while I’ve been away.

One of our recent trips that helped refresh and inspire me was a trip to Pinnacles National Monument, about 150 miles south of San Francisco off US Highway 101. It’s a little-known national park that feels as if it’s a million miles from the nearest city.

There are some excellent hikes for those who are so inclined – with wildflowers and California Condors in spring, or so I am told – but there’s a lot to see without going too far from your car. Acorn woodpeckers, for example, are everywhere.


In fact, you don’t even have to  leave your car to view wildlife such as wild turkeys, browsing in the woods:

There are a number of trails that are specifically designed to be accessible to visitors with disabilities. There’s camping, and motels and restaurants are about 40 miles away in King City, CA. Altogether, an easy place to refresh the body, mind, and spirit without leaving civilization too far behind.


Point Reyes Lighthouse: Comfort in the Big Outdoors

May 8, 2011

The lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore is one of our favorite day trip destinations in the Bay Area. In terms of access, one of its nicest aspects is its flexibility and open-endedness. From the parking lot to the viewing platform above the lighthouse itself, the entire experience is physically accessible to a very wide range of ages and abilities. It’s one of the best physical, psychological, and spiritual getaways around, just two hours north of San Francisco.

Even if you don’t get any farther than this bench a few yards from the parking lot, you’ll still have beautiful visit to a stunning location. (Be sure to bring warm, windproof clothes.)

The easy quarter mile road from the parking lot to the visitor center is closed to most vehicles. It’s an inviting path, with something lovely to see around every bend.

Even the signs – which are informative and well-designed, in an eighties sort of way – have gorgeous views.

The visitor center is just a small, folksy hut that hasn’t been improved or changed in at least 25 years – which I think is to its advantage. Nothing high-tech or intrusive, just functional and informative displays and very patient and knowledgeable personnel behind the desk.

If you can handle the long walk down to the lighthouse proper (and back up again), by all means do it. We have spent some of the most tranquil hours of our lives down there, sitting out in the sun, fog, wind, mist, and rain – sometimes all in the same visit – searching the ocean for migrating grey whales or just gazing out at the ocean, the birds, the occasional sea lion, enveloped by the sound of the sea and the moan of the fog horn. It’s comfort of a very deep kind.

If you are unable to go down the stairs, or not inclined, you can hang around on the upper viewing platform and have much the same experience, without the foghorn and with longer views. In all the years we’ve been going to Point Reyes, it has never been less than spectacularly beautiful and deeply refreshing to the mind and spirit, no matter what the season or the weather.

Citigroup Center, Los Angeles: A respite from the cubicle

April 27, 2011

We didn’t evolve to sit in cubicles. Every hour we spend staring at a screen, surrounded by beige walls and taupe carpet and khaki co-workers, is a stress. We need green, open spaces in which to momentarily reconnect with our primate selves.

One of the more pleasant retreats for the office workers of downtown Los Angeles can be found at Citigroup Center, a the corner of West 5th and South Flower.

There’s a pleasant mix of open and closed spaces, closed corners and wide views, trees and sun. Plus the refreshing sight and sound of water.

Follow the steps or escalator down, and you discover that it is in fact a waterfall.

This area would be especially cool and refreshing on a hot, sunny, smoggy day.

I like this space not because it is special, but simply because it’s an area of very expensive real estate that was creatively and thoughtfully designed to make people comfortable while they take a break from their jobs. Yes, legally mandated to be set aside for that purpose, I know – but better than it has to be.

LACMA: White cubes still rule

April 11, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art still believes in white cubes – those minimalist display spaces that are an essential part of the modernist art experience in contemporary museums.

It seems to be a requirement that the white cube, in its purest form, must have no seating, as in this photography exhibit in the newly opened Resnick Pavillion.


Across the way at the Broad Contemporary (a museum within a museum), the scene could have been lifted from any major art museum any time in the last 50 years:

White walls, wood floors, no seats, pensive visitors in black, and a television on the floor – cathode ray, no less, for that classic touch.

An adjoining gallery had the requisite ambiguous constructions:

And to complete the sense that the visitor is but an acolyte at the altar of culture – a mere supplicant who must work hard for any rewards the art might have to offer – we have the inevitable unobtrusive label in the small typeface:

The Broad’s insistence on the old-fashioned “display-space-must-not-in-any-way-compete-with-the-art” aesthetic would almost be endearing if it didn’t make for so much discomfort.