Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I will eat you alive

The new City Hall opened last Saturday. I am a political nerd (in addition to being a software nerd, roleplaying nerd, video game nerd, and nerd-in-training in music and film), and I really do like San Jose, so I figured I'd go ahead and check it out. I'd first walked by it when exploring San Jose after my interview at Rocket Mobile, before I decided to take the job or even knew it would be offered. I didn't know what it was but it sure looked cool: an enormous glass structure, adjacent to a metal and glass dome, with pillars and rocks scattered nearby.

They started actually moving people in back in September, but now that all the landscaping and everything was complete it was time for a big celebration. I hopped on the VTA and whizzed downtown.

Turnout was quite good; the paper would describe it as "several thousand" people. The city was taking advantage of the attention by showcasing city services; you could pick up pamphlets on disaster preparation, lists of city phone numbers, information on waste disposal, and so on. The fire and police departments had their vehicles on display. One entire side of the plaza was given over to a children's center, with booths for art and sculpture and making music. Most of the people milled around looking at the buildings, while a few grabbed a seat under the canopy in preparation for the official ceremony. There was even a protestor there, carrying a sign with the smallest print I have yet seen. The big letters at the top announced "STOP THE BULLSHIT", followed by a lengthy paragraph beginning "All low-German speaking persons and their English allies..." Apparently he wanted a statue or something built for this one Spanish guy who either discovered the Santa Clara valley or founded San Jose, I'm not sure which.

As always, things got started behind schedule. It was around 11:10 when it began, as Mayor Ron Gonzales strode to the microphone. He strikes me as a very hands-on person; I had been expecting the standard process of a minor official welcoming people, then introducing a mid-ranking official, who in turn would introduce the mayor. Not so: he acted as the MC throughout the hour, offering his thoughts and welcoming each speaker to the podium. He directed all of his praise towards his forbearers, his associates, and the people of San Jose. In particular he singled out the previous administration, which started the process nearly a decade ago to bring the city hall downtown; the city council, which has helped absorb some of the political fallout from the move (more on that later); and the individual workers who actually built the hall. Gonzales set the overall message that would be reiterated and explored by the later speakers, describing the city hall in terms of a public investment that would benefit the entire city.

I was pleased to see that Richard Meier, the architect who designed the complex, was present and speaking. He is most famous for having designed the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and you could see a similar aesthetic at work here. I really appreciated his talk, which dug into the details of how they had made choices about how to represent San Jose history and culture in this building, and how they hoped it would be used. He talked about how the light-colored rock extension was evocative of the adobe architecture from early in the city's history; how the glass tower, in addition to maximizing daylight, was meant to symbolize government transparency; how the futuristic design of the rotunda, which incorporates some revolutionary heating and cooling ideas, represents the forward-looking mindset of Silicon Valley. Above all, it's meant to be a livable area, where people will congregate during their lunch breaks, or spend a weekend afternoon, and he mentioned that the city has already scheduled the first wedding to be held in the rotunda.

Next up was the pastor of the adjacent First Methodist church, who has been instrumental in encouraging the return of City Hall to the urban core. He shared anecdotes about living next to a construction site, and spoke forcefully about the importance of downtown to the health of the entire city. Like a lot of mainline preacher his talk (which I enjoyed) was filled with references to "spirit," "soul," and "heart," but didn't once mention Christ or God (which I'm sure others appreciated). He was visibly pleased at how the building had turned out and was quite optimistic about its role in bringing people together and creating a shared space. He pointed out, as an example, the tall metal poles in the courtyard. On hot summer days, he explained, these poles would generate a mist that would cool the area. He also welcomed the San Jose State University Marching Band into the plaza. They marched in with a triumphant drumline and stood at attention along the raised platforms near the stage.

The last speakers were the head of a contracting firm and the developer. Both were quite good speakers despite their relatively dry subject matter. They mentioned that the entire project had been completed under budget and without any major injury, which is quite remarkable for an endeavor of this size. About midway through, the misters the pastor had mentioned switched on, covering many of those nearby (including yours truly) with tiny droplets. These was fairly comic as the day's temperature had varied between mild and slightly chilly.

The moment was fast approaching for the ribbon cutting. The dignitaries headed over towards the comically oversized ribbon near the rotunda doors. As the mayor snipped the fabric, the marching band exploded with another loud marching tune. The many doors to the rotunda gradually swung open and a mass of people rushed to get in.

Being somewhat savvier, I decided to delay on the rotunda and made directly for the main office. At 18 stories tall, it seemed like the perfect place to get a good view of the city. I was one of the first people on the elevators, and from the moment I stepped off at the top floor I was in awe. I'm a sucker for dramatic views, and this provided the best I'd yet seen from within the city. You could overlook the other large buildings downtown, pick out individual parks, and see roads running straight towards the mountains. By now the sky had cleared and the brilliant azure sky made everything even more beautiful.

I slowly walked around the 18th floor, where the mayor and city council have their offices. Most were left open so people could come in, look at their furniture and photos, and appreciate the sight from their windows. Many uniformed police officers and city hall employees were present, maybe to make sure nobody tried to plant a bomb. All the other spectators were as impressed as I was. It was cool to see the wide variety of people who had come out, from white-collar workers like me to service employees, young and old, many families and many races. The whole thing felt very egalitarian, that the city was making itself available to everyone.

I gradually soaked up views from each of the windows, mentally building a 360-degree panoramic picture. I also marveled at the Mayor's large desk; I personally would have felt nervous about exposing that piece of wood to thousands of strangers. I returned to the elevator and shot down to the second floor.

Here there was a historical exhibit. It was a sequence of photos, interestingly arranged to show the transformation over time of San Jose and the Santa Clara valley. Rather than run from earlier to later photos, they were arranged by theme; for example, a photo showing a fruit cannery in 1932 (the area now known as Silicon Valley used to be an agricultural powerhouse, producing 70% of the world's prunes, for example, and over a quarter of the nation's fruit) is displayed next to a photo of an Intel clean room in 2001. A boarding school in the 1920's contrasts with an elementary school today. Over and over you saw interesting contrasts, generally showing the transformation of the valley into a more multicultural and technology-oriented place.

I also checked out the city council chambers. This is basically a standard auditorium with a large table in front. Throughout the day various local groups performed in the space; I got to hear part of a jazz concert from a nearby high school, and could have heard the San Jose Opera if I'd stuck around longer.

The fire and police departments were hosting a Katrina fundraiser cookout. (They called it a barbecue, but I won't hold that against them. They were grilling.) For a few bucks you could get a decent burger, water and chips. I went through the line and had a very satisfying meal, perched on one of the rocks embedded in the concrete courtyard out front.

I finally made my way into the rotunda. It had cleared out somewhat, leaving behind some characters like a man whizzing around on roller skates. I saw a receiving line marked "Meet the Mayor"; with only five people waiting, I figured it would be worth it. Like I said, I'm a political nerd. I shook Gonzales's hand and chatted briefly (he asked what I liked about the new building and shared his thoughts on the use of open space). I next did a tour around the rotunda itself, which was much more barren than I had expected, with a glass and steel shell and a simple spiral staircase inside. Still, the overall impression is quite dramatic.

The funny thing is, there actually is quite a lot of controversy and even a whiff of scandal around this new building. Many people claim that the old meeting space was adequate, and even if not, taxpayers' dollars could have been spent better on something other than accommodations for city employees. There are regular accusations of financial trickery to make the project seem cheaper than it really was. I don't want to discredit any of these ideas; I just moved here two months ago, after all, and can't say one way or another who's telling the truth. I will say, though, that having buildings like this is incredibly important. Everyone likes using this quote but I'll use it again: as Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." If you only look at a building in terms of its cost you are totally blinding yourself to the psychic and social impact it can have. The soaring skyscrapers of Chicago play a big role in my emotions about that city, just as the barren lots in the center of Kansas City shaped my feelings about living there. Buildings really do belong to everyone, they impact anyone who sees then when flying in or driving past, and can add or detract from our estimation of a city. I think it was absolutely the right move for the city to not restrict itself to an accountant's view of maximizing square feet per dollar; by allowing themselves to splurge they have created a thing of true beauty that will, if all goes well, do nothing less than make this a better city.

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