History Through Buildings

a brief mission statement

Everyone wants to talk about what the tech industry is doing to San Francisco and the Bay Area. Which is a good thing to do.

What we don’t talk about is what The Bay is doing to the tech industry. This place is home to only seven million people, and yet the people who live here are building the companies that are the Internet. Billions of people use the products, software, and services that are made in the area.

And maybe, this place we all love, can infuse the stuff that’s built here. The Bay’s geography and history can seep in.

We have a little plan to help we’re calling Open City. Here’s our suggestion: Let’s learn about the office buildings and warehouses, the places where people have worked and work still.


Buildings endure. They are the will of people made manifest, sublimely. And when we look up at them, we can imagine, concretely, where our ancestors walked, the strain on their muscles as they walked up the stairs, how they craned their necks to see the tops of the skyscrapers. Our bodies inhabit the same environment. And they do it day after day, learning by muscle memory the spaceways and the light.

Buildings contain and retain many types of stories. Natural resource supplies. Cottage industries. Communications networks. Artistic movements. Financial engineering. Civic culture. Personal adventures.

There is a more practical reason, too. Unlike so many historical things, the buildings are still here: we can touch them, look upon their designs and artifacts, learn from them as if they were museums of objects and ideas. At the same time, the building’s name and address form a bridge between its physical space and digital traces. We send it out in search queries like a tracer into history, lighting up the dozens of databases that now compose our collective inheritance.

We want people to document their buildings, past and present. But we’re not calling for histories of buildings, per se.

These are histories of The City, The Bay, California, from the perspective of one location on the map. They’re associative, not narrative. Personal, not academic. Exploratory, not definitive. Rococo, not severe. They flow from the concerns and interests of the current residents, but feed back into the present those same considerations from the denizens of the past.

Historians sometimes say that the past is like a foreign country. We have to learn its language and context to make sense of where we live now. These buildings provide the key for us to begin the process of decoding and understanding.

We stumbled on each other because we independently wrote this kind of story. We think you can, too. And if you’re inclined to, we think you should. We’re here to help.

Contained in this collection, there are the two examples that inspired Open City and a research starter kit based on Marcin and Sarah’s excellent intro from their work on the Phelan Building.

(For those wondering: “Why Open City?” Because it is almost a magical command, “Open, City!” Because there is a great book by Teju Cole of the same name about walking among historical skeletons in New York. Because openness is the spirit of the thing—anyone can do this. Because San Francisco has been an open city, choosing to adventure with new inhabitants rather than casting them out.)

(And for those wondering: “Why Medium?” Because it is pretty. Because it is easy to collaborate here. Because a collection is exactly what we want to create. And because Marcin and Sarah work for the place, which helps.)

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