Crissy Swamp: Hyperreal San Francisco

Postmodernism turns space into a hyperreal object: hyperspace. This ideal space is more real than reality. Abstraction overlays the concrete territory producing a simulation. Through hyperspace social Power can exert authority and control becoming a vehicle to create a new space for society. It becomes more ‘natural than nature’ and substitutes itself for nature. Like a bonsai tree in a Japanese garden where the concept of a perfect tree overlays an actual tree to create trees more beautiful, more ‘tree-like’, than real trees. If we look at Baudrillard’s successive phases of the hyperreal; first hyperspace reflects Nature. It is a map of the concrete. The second phase has hyperspace mask and pervert nature. It masks the absence of nature. In time it bears no relation to nature at all. It is pure simulacrum.

An example of this is Crissy Field on the Presidio of San Francisco which before human development was a tidal saltwater marsh. When the United States Military took over the Presidio from the Spanish they filled in the wetlands and turned the uninhabitable area into an airfield that became the first air strip on the West Coast. This airfield was of utmost importance during World War I. The Presidio was decommissioned in 1994 and turned over to civilian use. San Francisco, always at odds with the military, had an uneasy relationship with the Army station. After decommissioning they dismantled much of the Army infrastructure. They gave the Army hospital building to Industrial Light and Magic a visual effects company founded by George Lucas the creators of special effects in movies such as Star Wars and Disney Marvel superhero franchises. The 1969 Letterman Army Hospital building was demolished and replaced with a near duplicate. Here the simulated Army building was used to create imaginary worlds for movies.

Developers of the Presidio took tidal maps of Crissy Field from the early 1800’s and used them to reconstruct wetlands destroying much of Crissy Field turning it back into wetlands. The idea was to return it to its original ‘natural’ condition; “to restore the marsh to the pre-military configuration, to an idealized ‘natural’ condition.” The new design turned it into a marsh and estuary. The intent was to create a habitat for birds in the dense city of San Francisco. $34 Million dollars was spent to “Restore” Crissy Field back to a tidal marsh. The landscape architects advocated for an “ecological approach to planning the preservation and restoration of natural systems, and the notion of sustainable landscape”. The ‘ideal’ of nature overwrote the function of the airfield. Today Crissy Field is a “Wildlife Protection Area” in the City of San Francisco. As urban space there is no wildlife to protect except birds which can fly to other estuaries outside of urban areas.

Henri Lefebvre often thinks of space as a palimpsest, where maps have been incompletely erased and new layers are added one on top of another. This creates a layering and depth of space with simultaneities. This may happen in Europe where there is an abundance of historical buildings, but not in the United States where history is not valued. Hyperspace is close to Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the hyperreal and its complete destruction of the real. The real in the case of Crissy Field would have been its historical use as an Army Airfield. Going back in time it was part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Prior to that the field was used by the Spanish Army for grazing livestock and agriculture. And prior to that was used by the Ohlone natives for harvesting shellfish and fish. One would need to return to pre-human development to see Crissy Field as a bird estuary. The map is not layered with history, but rather an ideal pre-history is imagined and recreated from inaccurate historical maps. This is both the power and the danger of Hyperspace. It is Ideal, hyperreal, and totally a human construct. It is not nature, nor ever can be. The use of Hyperspace is not “restoring” nature but destroying the built environment and replacing it with an Idealized substitute; a hyperreal pre-industrial landscape.

There is a spatial logic to simulacrum. Using the language of Poststructuralist linguistics, the past as ‘referent’ finds itself ‘bracketed’, then effaced altogether leaving nothing but ‘texts’- hyperreality. The Poststructuralist linguistic logic works as follows:

Crissy Field

(Crissy Field = x )

(Crissy Field = Army Airfield)

(Tidal Saltwater Marsh = Nature)

(Nature)= Crissy Field

[(NATURE!)] > Crissy Field

{[( …! )]} = Hyperreality/Simulacrum

A deconstructed Crissy Field becomes Crissy Swamp. Bracking or abstraction becomes a way to destroy the real to leave copy with no original. There is a desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past, a missing natural world in an urban landscape. Urban designers built an idealized past that is everywhere, but nowhere; a utopian ‘Nature’ that could have existed in San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, Portland, or Seattle. It is a nostalgia for a pre-Modern world before industrial production.

Through hyperspace social Power can exert authority and control becoming a vehicle to create a new space for society. It hides the real agenda of Power. It the case of Crissy Field, Power of urban planners was to plan a massive ten lane highway that cuts off Crissy Field from the rest of the Presidio and San Francisco proper. Crissy Marsh was a nice, feel-good attempt at distracting from this massive highway project that links the Golden Gate Bridge with downtown San Francisco. It cuts through the Presidio of San Francisco’s ‘main post’ and created a spatial division between the waterfront and the land of the Presidio effectively destroying the Presidio as a single unified ‘natural’ space. Crissy swamp works as a distraction to ‘hide’ the agenda of the highway. The highway occupies the exact location the wetlands that existed in the 1800’s. These wetlands occurred naturally due to the water run-off from the surrounding hills. Crissy marsh is a lie that obscures a greater lie of building a highway in former wetlands.

Across the now highway from Crissy Field is the Palace of Fine Arts created during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. It too is a nostalgia for a pre-Modern world before industrial production. It too is a pond that functions as an estuary for birds. Yet unlike Crissy Swamp it does not try to create a simulated nature. It expresses a link between the man-made and the natural world. Human creativity and art come from nature. As Frank Lloyd Wright would say, “Nature with a capital ‘N’”. Meaning nature for him was both his muse and divine. The Palace of Fine Arts was created in a different age. A hopeful age. An age when man and nature was seen to work in harmony with each other to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Today our relationship with Nature is more problematic. Human value is seen as distinctly separate from the value of nature and all decisions must value one over the other. Anthropocentrism is against ecocentrism.

If you would like to see my video on this topic, see link:

About me: Jaime Roberts is an architect living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes about architecture, design, and the environment.



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