Sir Norman Foster in the Bay area

Sir Norman Foster, acclaimed British architect, and his firm, Foster & Partners, are currently juggling multiple commissions in the Bay area. Foster’s success is due in part to his long-term advocacy for technologically advanced buildings that serve the client, while remaining environmentally sensitive.

Foster & Partners has proposed two skyscrapers for San Francisco’s Transbay Project at First and Mission. The proposal features a 910-foot mixed-use skyscraper rising from diagonal supports, with ½ acre of public open space below. A second 605-foot residential tower sits nearby. Together they represent 2 million square feet of new space.

Foster & Partners is responsible for the design of the recently-approved (March 2014) Apple store for San Francisco’s Union Square, a glass and steel design, 45% larger than the existing store on Stockton Street.

Foster & Partners is the genius behind Apple’s new office building, now under construction on 175 acres in Cupertino. The shape, a glass donut (or spaceship), will eventually house 13,000 employees. Yet, the (one mile in circumference) building will only take up 20% of the available land, the rest left to open space.

Foster has already completed two successful buildings in the Bay area, both at Stanford University and both appreciated for their innovative technology.

First is the Center for Clinical Science Research completed in 2000, a center that is environmentally sensitive and seismically sound. Consisting of two windowed 4-story buildings facing an interior corridor, the design allows maximum natural light to penetrate the space. A tubular aluminum overhang offers a reduction but not a blockage of sunlight; operable windows allow for natural ventilation. This building was designed to serve a diverse community of researchers, scientists, and clinical personal from multiple departments. Interior spaces–open labs and meeting rooms–encourage collaboration among persons and departments.

Foster’s second project at Stanford University was the James Clark Bio X Building, completed in 2003. Located next to the Stanford Hospital and adjacent to the science quadrangle, it is a metaphorical “hinge” between the academic and medical communities. The purpose of the building is to build collaboration among the science, medicine, physics, and engineering departments as well as other disciplines in the university. Foster created three glass wings off a centered open-air atrium, to allow for maximum natural light. The wings are encircled by red-toned catwalks that recall the color of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the roof tiles of Stanford. By putting these catwalks on the exterior, Foster creates more workspace inside.

The Bio X interior spaces allow for maximum flexibility. Users access utilities such as electricity, gas, water, and networking, from a pull-down ceiling grid. Desks, chairs and tables are modular and can be reassembled for deliberate or impromptu meetings.

These 2 Stanford buildings and the 3 ongoing projects share a common Foster & Partners aesthetic. They embrace technology, serve the user, and bring a new beauty to the landscape.

Two Stalks in Bloom

The Puya Raimondii plant from South America blooms only once in its lifetime, and then it dies. Ordinarily this plant, also called the “Queen of the Andes”, doesn’t bloom until it is 80 -100 years old. Thus, every time this species blooms, it attracts attention.

The Bay area has experienced blooming Puya twice in the past 30 years. First, at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens in 1986, and second, at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in 2006. Now in 2014 we have a third opportunity to see the blooming Puya—once again at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens. A seed planted in 1990 has begun to bloom, making it, at 23, the youngest Puya to have reached this stage.

I saw the Puya last week. Although it is surrounded by many other exotic and unusual plants, it stands out because it is 15 feet tall, growing straight out of its base, an exhuberant cluster of grasses. White blossoms cluster on the stalk, and many buds promise more flowers in the coming weeks.

The Puya Raimondii reminds me of an equally striking stalk-like plant, an import from the Canary Islands called Echium Candicans, or Pride of Madeira. Like the Puya, Echium grows tall, and flowers along its stalk. Like the Puya, Echium is monocarpic, meaning that it blooms and then dies. Unlike the Puya, Echium grows in profusion throughout the Bay area especially on the coast. Bay area environmentalists worry that Echium is taking over the habitat of native plants.

Both Puya and Echium produce hundreds of seeds in their final days as they flower and then die. Botanists carefully preserve the seeds of the Puya and share them with other botanical facilities, hoping to propagate the endangered species. As for the Echium, botanists may remove the stalk before the seeds have time to drop, hoping to prevent any further spreading of the plant.

Killer Frogs in Golden Gate Park

The African Claw "Killer" Frog

The African Claw “Killer” Frog

Once upon a time there was a tranquil lily pond in Golden Gate Park. It was just off JFK Drive, near the California Academy of Sciences, and was a pleasant home to ducks and fish, turtles, and frogs. Then someone, or something destroyed that equilibrium. The lily pond became a dumping ground for an invasive amphibian, the African clawed frog.

The frogs flourished in the lily pond as they ate the other native species and plants. Unfortunately, they had no natural predators of their own.  In 2003 the Park Department estimated the frog population at 10,000.  By then, California Fish and Game and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department knew they had a problem.

Officials worried that the frogs might escape the lily pond and get into other water sources in the city, leading to numbers impossible to control.  Some scientists called for immediately draining the pond but officials dragged their feet and tried other methods.  In 2004 California Fish and Game and some Stanford researchers began a process of collecting frogs with nets and baited traps. By 2007 they had captured about 2,500 frogs with many more to go.

In 2012 California Fish and Game filled the pond with chlorine, covered it with tarps and waited for the remaining frogs and tadpoles to die.  Today the pond is finally drained and spread with lime, another effort to fight the frogs.  Adding further urgency to the mission: a recent study by Stanford researchers has identified this frog as the source of a deadly fungus that has decimated the amphibian population around the world.

How did the frogs get there in the first place? From the 1930’s to 1950’s UCSF and other medical facilities bred these frogs to be used for human pregnancy tests. Later technologies made the frog test obsolete and rumor has it that researchers dumped their unneeded frogs in the nearby pond.

Today chain link fence surrounds the lily pond. But a hopeful sign announces the projected opening of a restored lily pond in Fall, 2014.





Searching for Ed Ricketts in Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium sits where the old Hovden Sardine Cannery used to operate, at the end of Ocean Avenue in Monterey, now called Cannery Row.  School children and adults crowd the Aquarium daily. Exhibits display native and exotic species of fish, mammals, invertebrates and plants.

One small exhibit, strategically placed in the front atrium, offers a glimpse of the old Cannery Row, when sardines were abundant and the Cannery was the main industry. The exhibit includes a small biological laboratory from Cannery Row once owned and operated by Ed Ricketts. We see Ricketts’ desk, specimen jars, books, boots and information about his life.

Ricketts dropped out of University of Chicago in 1922 but had an inquiring mind and a love of marine biology. Like John Muir, his idol, he walked miles through the south looking at and thinking about nature. Like Muir, his ideas were not initially accepted because he lacked the appropriate academic degrees. In 1923 Ed moved from Chicago to Monterey, California and opened the Pacific Biological Laboratories with a friend, A.E. Galigher. They started a small business collecting and preparing marine specimens for schools and businesses.

In Monterey Ricketts joined a community of writers, artists, fishermen, cannery workers, and businessmen. John Steinbeck was a part of that community, and he and Ricketts became close friends.

Ed’s business took him from Alaska to British Columbia to Mexico, and he kept detailed notebooks about the sea life of the Pacific Coast. In 1939 Stanford University published Ricketts’ book, Between Pacific Tides, about the sea and shore habitats of the West, from rocky coast to mud flats to sandy shore to eel grass. His book suggests an interconnectedness among species and habitat that is basic to modern ecological theory.

Steinbeck used Ricketts as the central character of “Doc” in Cannery Row, depicting him with wisdom, patience and generosity. Doc is a leader of the Cannery community but also its victim, his generosity making him vulnerable to exploitation. His willingness to be exploited endears the character to the reader.

The real Ricketts traveled with Steinbeck to Mexico and co-wrote The Sea of Cortez. Ricketts also served as mentor to a young Joseph Campbell (later known for his work in mythology), collecting and cataloging specimens in Alaska.

Ricketts’ work reflects his philosophy of life: exploring and understanding the whole by examining its parts. He advocated seeing all of nature as cohesive and interdependent long before environmentalists campaigned to preserve open space and wetlands.

Ed was killed in Monterey in 1948 when his Buick stalled on the train tracks near his lab and was hit by an oncoming train.  Today there is a statue of Ricketts and a small park at that location. Passersby are known to place flowers in Ricketts hand.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium hosts the Ed Ricketts Memorial Award and Lecture annually, honoring a scientist who has contributed “exemplary work throughout their career and advanced the status of knowledge in the field of marine science”.