The Craft of Curation: Douglas Burnham

We’ve always loved the people who are eclectic, who break down boundaries, and who are just, well, scrappy. Because they’re the ones who get things done, who change the way we see and experience things.

Image courtesy of envelopeA+D

Scrappy isn’t a word you usually think of when you think of the word curator–though you should. But then again we’re going to guess you’ve never met a curator like Douglas Burnham.

He doesn’t work in a museum, nor in a store. He’s more like an Urban Curator, bringing together people, experiences and space to give urbanites (so far just urban) a new sense of community and connectedness to place.

Trained as an architect (at Cornell), and founder of Oakland-based envelopeA+D (Architecture and Design) which has proven design chops in the commercial (e.g. Facebook), restaurant (e.g. Domaine Chandon, Delfina, Locanda, Commis, and others), and residential arenas. He also is an adjunct professor of architecture at California College of the Arts (CCA).

Image courtesy of envelopeA+D

That’s good but that’s not what makes them different. Visionary Douglas and envelopeA+D are an intriguing mix of urban planners, developers, architects and cultural curators.

Long on our radar as design leaders, Douglas and his team really piqued our interest when we learned he was doing the (not exactly temporary) popup proxy project in San Francisco, which took over two blocks of San Francisco’s hot Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Image courtesy of envelopeA+D

A little history lesson is in order here. One of the better gifts of the Bay Area’s Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was the tear down of the much-maligned Central Freeway. The reclaimed light and space led to the slow but steady revitalization of the Hayes Valley area. But with the economic downturn, the City of San Francisco found that it couldn’t sell two large but empty lots it owned.  So it decided to do a short term (2-3 year) lease to wait out the downturn.

Fast forward. Douglas and his team come in and work their planning and design magic (with a strong nod to sustainability). Soon (OK not so soon, but miraculously quickly) come a series of conventional and unconventional (think shipping containers and parking lots) retail and arts spaces they have chosen: Smitten (liquid nitrogen) ice cream, Ritual Coffee Roasters, room for San Francisco’s now-ubiquitous food trucks; the Museum of Craft and Design’s pop up installation; and most recently, the Biergarten, a 100 seat open air beer garden from the boys at Suppenkuche.

Image courtesy of envelopeA+D

In the works: there are plans for non-food retail as well.  But it’s not shops as you’ve probably come to think of them. The plan is for very small retail spaces that will be filled by several different designers, artists, and artisans.

There are plans for a bijou movie theater and a mini-art gallery in which local SF curators and artists would curate shows and artists.

Image by Evgeny Vasenev

Douglas and his team call it “flexible urbanism” (temporarily transforming underused, high-value–urban spaces into thriving cultural areas that bring an economic vitality to otherwise fallow sites.) We call it very, very cool.

Douglas and I got together at envelopeA+D offices in an old munitions warehouse that they renovated. (Yet another example of creative reuse.)

Image by Evgeny Vasenev

So how would YOU describe what you’re doing at proxy? We’re cultural curators. We’re pulling together people we identify as interesting and presenting them to the public.

Say more. It’s really the choreography or curation about what things we need to create a dynamic place.  You need food, art, retail and brand as a way to expose people to culture. Events like an urban beach, outdoor movies, mini golf…it’s all about getting people to play and mix and engage with the excitement and diversity of the city.

What was your goal in all this? When we sat down to figure this out, we worked with the question, how do you bring art and culture to a space that’s serendipitous? How do we capture the spirit of place?  We knew it needed to get people to open their eyes a bit.  Flexibility and change was really important to us as well since the project itself is on a fixed timeline.

The Pop Up thing feels essentially San Francisco, though other cities are claiming it’s essentially them. We don’t say pop up…for proxy we say storefront. (Ah.)

That’s interesting, because architecture is so much about permanence, about edifices that stand the test of time. And you’re talking about something that’ll likely go away in a few years, and change on an on-going basis in the interim. Yeah, so much of architecture is about creating permanent icons. Proxy responds to the desire–the need–for a faster pace of change in the city. The city is a durable construct, and it takes a 100 years for a building lifecycle to take place. There are voids (parking lots, under utilized spaces) that can and should be used to transform the spaces they’re adjacent to.

We think urban design can be more responsive to the possibilities of the present through short term uses. (Nice.)

Art is really important to this, but you started with food as a point of curation. Why? We started with food at proxy because food brings people and people are really the heart of all of this. Food pulls people out of their private worlds, gets them to spend time in the public realm.

And what’s your vision for retail? How do you get the right vibe going there? Oh we curate it, absolutely! At proxy Storefront, we’ll be having young designers and we’ll give proxy-goers glimpses of people doing amazing work in art and design. We’ll preference local. The whole point is to get people to come in and have energizing experiences.

You know, the internet has changed expectations. We crave newness. Proxy is a physicalized manifestation of that craving, it’s an open framework, a platform for this rapid change.

What’s it like to be the developer of proxy? It’s often daunting. We had to do some pretty creative fundraising since banks weren’t going to touch this and the City wasn’t funding it. Then there were the issues of doing work like this with city building codes that didn’t quite contemplate this kind of thing when they were written. So there’s been a lot of negotiating. Intense negotiating. (See? Scrappy.)

You’re not just acting as developers here, you’re actually working to design the experiences. What was that like? As architects we design experience all the time.  Our sense of architecture is that it is a frame for engaged experience.  Our work in designing restaurants (like Locanda or Commis) or museums (like Pier 24) gives us the ability to really craft peoples’ reality as they are immersed within the frame of the architecture.  At proxy, we’re also chosing the vendors, the cultural partners and creating the events.  Proxy is, at its heart, an experience machine.

This all feels European, was that conscious? (I’m looking at the firm’s highly–and I mean highly–covetable book collection, filled with numerous tomes on Dutch, European Architecture.) I travel to Holland a lot, and yes these guys drive our approach to the city in lots of ways. They’re smart about urbanism and the use of space.

There’s also a Project called Platoon in Berlin. It’s a neighborhood center that has an art component to it. They use containers, as we do with proxy, and incorporate lots of open urban playspace.

Image courtesy of envelopeA+D

Where does proxy fit in with what you’re doing at envelope? It’s changing our office. We’re becoming developers–we’re developers of this temporary project that doesn’t have any rules, that no one around here has done before. We’re working with the mayor’s office, we’re promoting proxy, we’re selecting the people and content for proxy_EAT and proxy_STOREFRONT. It’s about finding complelling, talented, hardworking people, and bringing them under your umbrella to expose them to a wider public. Architects don’t do that usually.

No, architects aren’t generally known for their embrace of the messiness of reality and people. That’s the thing. We’re really not just architects of buildings. We’re architects of experience. But…it’s more than just experience. It’s interaction, it’s about creating, nurturing, engagement.

We don’t look at the precious and pristine as the end goal. I mean in some sense, Proxy can’t be. There’s just not a whole lot of budget…it really pares it down. But luckily we have a lot of experience in that. We’re scrappy, use quotidien materials. We’re deconstructing what’s essential to craft experience.

But how does this relate to the high end corporate or residential work you do? A higher budget or a higher level of resolution doesn’t make a project more (or less) architectural.  Its all about the ideas of the project.  Architecture is about the manifestation of ideas in material form.  Buildings curate the relationships between interior and exterior, public and private and between people, program and use. A high-end job has the same end goals as a project with a lean budget.  Its just that project like proxy just requires a scrappier approach and having trust in the process.

How’d you get the idea that you were good curators as well as designers? We got our first taste of it when we were invited to design the CCA centennial exhibition held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (CCA@100: Innovation by Design). Our struggle was to help to curate a cohesive body of work out of a very diverse collection of design items created by CCA students and alums. So we set up this apparatus for viewing these items… sort of a kaleidoscopic ark…By looking into the  the ark, you got these cross-connections between disparate items and the reflective interior multiplied the body of work on itself – extending into infinite space, like a kaleidoscope. It was a frame for reinterpretation and engagement of a fixed body of work.  After designing the SFMOMA exhibition, I think we caught the curation bug…


Proxy is on Hayes Street at Octavia in San Francisco.


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