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October 16, 2008

Architecture and Happiness: Goleta Pier

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe what you remember from your recent visit to Europe or Chicago is the great buildings listed in the tourist guide. Or are you remembering postcards and photographs of them instead? ...

But maybe what you remember with the most pleasure from your visit -- what you can still feel deep in your very own cells; what you really took away, for your very own self -- is the pleasure of breakfast at an out-of-the-way cafe, or the view down an unnamed alley, or leaning over a bridge and watching a river go by, or just enjoying the comfort of your hotel room's bed for a long lazy morning.

Those are architectural experiences of worth too. Why aren't they recognized and discussed as such? A good architectural question: Why did you enjoy a long lazy morning in one hotel room and not in another?

Architecture in the usual unique-masterpiece-torn- from-its-context sense involves too much self-consciousness, too much learning. It's unnatural, and it often doesn't correspond to our actual experiences of places.

Architecture came into focus for me when I woke up to the fact that there was no reason to limit my interest to masterpieces and geniuses, let alone to buildings ripped from their context. Instead, I could let myself take in the entire built environment. Like that, parks, streets, the spaces between buildings, farms, trees, lawns, barns, and towns opened up to me as "architecture" too.

I've been a happy (instead of a frustrated) fan ever since, with my eyes open nearly all the time to where I am and to what's around me. In fact, I often get so absorbed by the spaces between the masterpieces that I overlook the masterpieces. Between you and me, I don't generally find this to be any big loss.

Which bring me to the no-masterpiece-but-still-wonderful structure I want to show off today: Goleta Pier, sometimes known as More's Landing, a pier off a beach about 10 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara, California, near Isla Vista. Let me take you on a quick tour, showing off some of the pier's virtues.

For starters: The Pier interacts well with its environment:


It punctuates the bay, and brings out its natural qualities, the way spices used well don't cover up a dish's major ingredients but instead complement them and show them off.


Imagine this bay and beach without Goleta Pier. It'd be a lovely place still, but perhaps somewhat less defined and less memorable.


The pier works -- it has "interest" -- not just from one distance and from one point of view. It's interesting and engaging from numerous angles, and from numerous points of view.



Open secret: A common failing of modernist buildings is that, while they can have a lot of visual impact, they often have their full effect only when seen from one or two specific places. They aren't engineered for the use of 3D people, each of whom has his own purposes. Instead, they're stage-managed for maximum impact on the admiring camera lens. Unlike these narcissistic showoffs, Goleta Pier is modestly pleasing from almost any angle:


The approach to Goleta Pier and the entrance onto it is casual yet well-defined, simple yet not without a sense of event, and of mystery:


Proceeding down the length of Goleta Pier is almost like walking along a rustic, folk version of a Parisian quay:


The course along the pier is full of events and interest. There's much that's worth pausing over and relishing:


The sound of the water, the creaking of the wood, the wheeling of the birds, the activities of the people fishing are all part of a tapestry of sensual events.


The structure is textured and detailed in a satisfying, rough-hewn way:


The Pier offers tons of smashing vistas and perspectives, while insisting on none of them:


If the approach to the pier was striking in the way it completed and enhanced the setting, the view from it is even more eloquent, once again both setting off and completing the natural beauty of the beach and the bay:


And, hey, gotta love the fact that seagulls, pelicans, and pigeons like the Pier:


A quick tour, but a rich and rewarding experience, no? The interaction of structure and setting ... The way nature and nurture harmonize ... The way the Pier is both so utilitarian yet dare-we-say-it spiritual ...

Part of what I love best about Goleta Pier is how modest it manages to be. Despite a genuinely spectacular length of over 1000 feet, it's anything but domineering. It's here to serve, and in almost any way you want it to: as setting, as diversion, as highlight or backdrop, or just as a place to dangle some bait from.

This willingess to serve is to me far more beautiful than much of the self-conscious beauty that "great architecture" often traffics in. It's a human quality, not a purely aesthetic one -- and where architecture goes (and certainly where I go), human virtues trump aesthetic ones. There are many different kinds of beauty to be enjoyed, after all. The strictly-aesthetic ones ... Well, they can be nice too.

Punchline to this posting: As wonderful a creation as Goleta Pier is, there appears to be no architect or designer behind it. Really-truly. One source puts it this way:

"No one seems to know when the current pier was actually built but it predates 1954 since that was the year of a major repair and rebuild (as happened again in the 1980s)."

In other words, Goleta Pier was created catch-as-catch-can, and was then patched-over and heavily-reworked, by god only knows who.

Does knowing that no artist-creator is behind Goleta Pier destroy our enjoyment of the structure? Although this fact probably does guarantee that Goleta Pier will never be mentioned in fancy architecture-appreciation books, I can't imagine why it should stand in the way of our experience. Screw the fancy architecture-appreciation crowd. There Goleta Pier stands, a mundane-yet-poetic, tremendous-yet-unpushy thing of more-than-merely-aesthetic beauty that's much loved by those who know it.

Takeaway lesson: Given that much of what we love most in the built environment was created without the help of architects -- and given the penchant that many contempo architects and designers show for the bizarre, the place-disrupting, and the generally obnoxious -- are architects really desirable at all? Maybe we'd do better most of the time to see if we can get by without them; we'd certainly do well to be wary of the visionary / grandstanding ones. Which doesn't mean that we have to settle for being force-fed monstrous corporate crap, of course.

Somewhat related: A great (and blessedly short) brain-opening book: Bernard Rudofsky's "Architecture Without Architects."

Previous installments in my Architecture and Happiness series can be found here and here.



posted by Michael at October 16, 2008


Excellent note, fantastic photographs.

The wood looks impressive, but you cannot walk barefoot on it.

Posted by: j on October 16, 2008 3:39 AM

Well done photo essay and well-reasoned commentary on the joys and beauties of "organic" design. Thanks for the great reminder of a wonderful place I used to hang out at a lot.

Remember the great lunch we had nearby at The Beachside?

Hope you and The Wife are well and belated congratulations on your retirement!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 16, 2008 1:57 PM

Nice to see my locale represented on your very worldly blog!

Goleta Pier (and Goleta Beach in general) is a wonderful feature of our area. It plays a key role in the process of teaching my son and his pals about the Ways of the Waterman. Swimming, snorkeling, fishing, night, day, winter, summer, high tide, low tide, no surf, big surf -- the pier stands strong and steady amidst the whole gamut.

Here are a couple of larky photos we shot there about 10 years ago:

Posted by: Dirk Brandts on October 16, 2008 3:10 PM

Michael, thanks for the photo essay. We'll be in the Santa Barbara area early in November and will check the pier out if we have the time. It looks like your pix were shot on different days -- or was it a day where the fog lifted while you were there?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 16, 2008 7:45 PM

Michael: [W]here architecture goes (and certainly where I go), human virtues trump aesthetic ones

AH HA! That's the crux of our problem right there. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to separate aesthetic virtues from human ones in the first place? Boy did that turn out to be a dumb idea.

Posted by: Brian on October 16, 2008 8:39 PM

J -- Glad you enjoyed, and you're certainly right about the wood -- flipflops required, at a minimum.

Reid - I was thinking about our lunch at the Beachside often while pulling this together. Are you missing the California coast much these days?

Dirk -- Fun photos indeed! You're lucky (and your son's lucky) to live in such a great part of the world.

Donald -- Yeah, a couple of different days, one sunny, one foggy. The Beachside (which is right at the base of the pier) is a very nice restaurant with excellent seafood and great views. It's a 10 mile drive from S.B., and you may or may not want to bother. There's a newish restaurant at Hendry's Beach that's about as pretty a location as can be:

The Boathouse at Hendry's Beach, 2981 Cliff Dr., Santa Barbara, CA. 93109, 805-898-2628.

Food's ok-to-pretty-good, but the setting is to die for. And Opal's on State Street is reliably superfine. Are you going to treat yourself for a drive through the S.B. wine country? That's a nice one-day jaunt.

Brian - And ain't that the right question. Where do you suppose it all started? I'm prone to blame it on modernism, but I do that too easily. Denis Dutton has a book on evolutionary theory and aesthetics about to come out that I'm very excited about. He ropes it all back together again.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 16, 2008 8:56 PM

Very nicely observed Michael. There is something spiritual about a nice pier--both a landing point and a launching point into the unknown.

Posted by: Steve on October 17, 2008 3:51 PM

Eloquently put!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 17, 2008 6:06 PM

I love it when you post stuff like this.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on October 18, 2008 12:50 PM

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