Urban Grids: The Heights


The northern edge of San Francisco is a landscape shaped by rolling hills. The tops of these hills command a spectacular view of sparkling bay waters, coastal shorelines, and the expansive ocean stretching into the horizon. It is no wonder, then, that throughout the city’s history, this area has been home to some of its richest inhabitants. Sprawling residences and stately apartments make for a delightful and awe-inspiring stroll.

It’s easy to miss the grids in these neighborhoods. Unless you are looking at a classic mid-century modern building, lines are covered with intricate details and green plants, and spaces are filled with ornamentation of all kinds. It took a little while to see the columns and rows, but once I found the first few, the neighborhoods began to reveal their story to me.

black arched door
art deco garage door

The first grids I saw—after quite a bit of searching—were found on large, imposing entryways. These grids were the simplest. On such immense entryways, something is needed to make their residences more approachable. After all, these are homes, and homes are meant to be a place of welcome to its residents and guests. The smaller squares serve to visually break the space into human-sized pieces. But the majesty of these entranceways must be maintained, so the grids are relatively subtle. Other than the modulations on the surface, there is usually no other distinction to draw attention to them.

Predictably, grids are used to add ornamentation onto the facades. A stately presence needs structure and order so as to appear in control and graceful. Whatever the interior forms do—weaving or swirling, repeating or layering—there is always a grid to contain the energy.

Once again, there is a lack of color to these grids. It would be unseemly to call too much attention to wealth.

repeated relief motifs
grid of relief motifs

However, the decoration that only peeks at the outside world becomes a little richer. These can be found hiding inside of vast arches or glancing out from windows.

lobby arch details
art deco window grate

In some of these doorways, the grid almost becomes unrecognizable. The splendor and opulence flow through the lines and spaces. Some of it even flows from one space to another, across different grids, creating a feast for the eyes.

gilded doorway

Lush, green plant life adds an effect of peace and calm to these imposing neighborhoods. But even these forms are controlled by man. Nothing lives in these domains without passing the scrutiny of the land’s master. Branches are strictly arranged into rows and columns. Sometimes they simply flank an object and create a focal point. Other times, the very leaves themselves become the grid.

diamond trellis of ivy leaves
diamond fences

Even when plants are allowed to roam naturally, their forms are contained and sheltered behind lines.

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