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Land of the Setting Sun.

San Francisco is about as far West as it gets – right on the setting sun’s doorstep. Nevertheless, this place plays a pivotal role in molding the world of tomorrow – because the Bay Area is the beating heart of the digital age. A trip to the crucible of the future.

Text: Gero Günther | Photos: Peter Augustin

Symbolic of the development of this west coast metropolis.

The rectangular edifice of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art looks pale, as if all traces of art and even life itself have been sucked right out of it. The neighbouring skyscrapers are devoid of color as well. Something’s seriously amiss in this city which is so colourful in reality. Suddenly movement enters the tableau: a massive index finger races down Market Street, threatening to push the venerable Ferry Building on the Embarcadero straight into the ivory-coloured waters of San Francisco Bay.

Sarah Brin’s finger stops just in time. A software developer for Autodesk, Inc., the last thing she wants to do is trash the authentically detailed model of San Francisco that her company has created. The miniature monochrome plastic model is a three-dimensional printout. City planners can alter it on a computer to their heart’s content, then generate a new 3-D model. It’s a very useful urban planning tool, and also symbolic of the development of this west coast metropolis: nowhere else in the world are advances in digital technology applied as immediately as in San Francisco. Brin’s fingertip now hovers over the replica of the waterfront building in which she is currently situated. Her company is one of the worldwide market leaders in computer-aided design. “What we do here,” she says, “is difficult to categorize. It’s a new kind of creativity.”

“Expand the boundaries of what’s possible”.

16 artists on scholarships as well as 500 computer scientists, inventors, hobbyists, and engineers work in this future-oriented workshop. All of them have access to 3-D printers, laser cutters, and water jet cutters for use in a wide variety of projects. Some are busy developing climate-friendly building facades, while others work on lower-cost prostheses for children. “We want to expand the boundaries of what’s possible,” says Brin. “Many of our projects are made digitally accessible to the general public.”

“Expand the boundaries of what’s possible”.

16 artists on scholarships as well as 500 computer scientists, inventors, hobbyists, and engineers work in this future-oriented workshop. All of them have access to 3-D printers, laser cutters, and water jet cutters for use in a wide variety of projects. Some are busy developing climate-friendly building facades, while others work on lower-cost prostheses for children. “We want to expand the boundaries of what’s possible,” says Brin. “Many of our projects are made digitally accessible to the general public.”

Countercultures and subcultures of every sort have traditionally made their home here.

Ever since the 1950s, San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area have been among the most innovative places in the world. This cultural and academic hub on the US west coast was at the forefront of several revolutions: ecological, scientific, and rock and roll, not to mention the sexual revolution – northern California has always been a place to try things out and take them to the next level. The digital revolution itself would have been unthinkable without Silicon Valley’s geeks.

“Welcome to Sherwood Forest” proclaims the sign at the entrance to Robinhood, a start-up in Palo Alto, about a 45-minute drive south of San Francisco. Not much in the office would lead you to suppose you’d wandered into a financial services firm. Not the huge comic book mural on the wall, nor the foosball table and especially not the colourful stools with seats that look like big plastic hands. The company’s 40 employees average about 25 years of age. Just over a year ago hardly anyone knew what Robinhood was all about. Today the software firm boasts hundreds of thousands of users. Robinhood developed a lean app that makes it ridiculously easy to buy and sell stocks – without any commissions. “With our app you can buy a single share of Apple or a hundred,” says the company’s 30-year-old founder Baiju Bhatt. “Our product is disruptive. We want to radically rejuvenate and democratize the investment industry.”

Bhatt is a Stanford graduate who would prefer to occupy himself with physics and space travel rather than stock prices. “The things that distinguish the Bay Area weren’t created by people whose top priority was making money,” he says. “We have the nerds and outsiders, the gays and the hippies to thank for all the really interesting stuff.” San Francisco is anything but a pale plastic model of a city; it brims with vitality. Countercultures and subcultures of every sort have traditionally made their home here. Legendary musicians and artists plied their trade in the Bay Area: socially engaged authors ranging from Jack London and John Steinbeck to the Beatniks surrounding Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more recently internet critic Dave Eggers, who moved his entire publishing operation, McSweeney’s, from New York to the west coast in 2001. Today, his publishing company is among the most renowned literary addresses in the US. It’s headquartered in the Mission District, sandwiched between espresso bars, tattoo parlors, and boutiques. “We publish a literary quarterly, a magazine with essays and articles, and books,” explains publishing director Jordan Bass. “Our decisions come straight from the heart. We believe in the future of the printed word.”

A lively place.

How exactly the countercultural capital ended up becoming the most expensive city in the US in recent years is one of the great ironies of history, but Bass has no desire to belabor the point. “San Francisco is still a lively place, one which we shouldn’t hold hostage to nostalgia.” Actually, explains the publisher, the migration of high-earning IT employees from the dull suburbs to the city makes perfect sense. As does the fact that the work of the computer and internet industries influences the art scene as well.

Every day, rail commuters to Silicon Valley  clatter past a 180-meter (600-ft.) long mural, the largest of many in San Francisco. The work was financed via crowdfunding. “After I got the idea,” recalls artist Brian Barneclo, “the first thing I did was get the building owner’s permission.” It took the artist years to gather funds for his project. “I ended up painting the thing in less than two weeks.” Gifted with a wry sense of humour and a healthy dose of self-criticism, Barneclo has won large-format commissions from Google and Facebook thanks to his success as a street artist. “All of a sudden I was a mural painter,” explains the 44-year-old. He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with this, however.

“I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone, tried something new – but nowadays I wouldn’t mind having a few works on display in galleries again,” says Barneclo. Grinning, he adds, “The truth is murals are only there so that people can take selfies in front of them.”

And ultimately upload them to the same social networks that have triumphantly conquered the world from their humble beginnings in the Bay Area. No doubt about it – you can’t get away from San Francisco and its revolutionary ideas. Both in virtual and in real life.

Raw and grilled oysters on picnic tables.

San Francisco nativ Jack London was well-acquainted with the sea. Before publishing his novel The Sea Wolf in 1904, London plied the waters of San Francisco Bay as a youth in his own boat, harvesting and selling oysters (illegally, but tolerated nonetheless). Anyone wishing to sample the marine delicacy nowadays should head about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marshall on Tomales Bay, where the Hog Island Oyster Company serves up raw and grilled oysters on picnic tables with an ocean view, accompanied by white wine, champagne, craft beer – and tidbits about oyster farming. George Curth loves explaining to his guests why oysters flourish in northern California: gourmands have the plankton-rich ocean currents flowing down from Alaska to thank for this particular culinary delight.

hogislandoysters.com

A pioneer of high quality California cuisine.

Amaryll Schwertner runs two restaurants in the Ferry Building, the landmark shopping center and ferry terminal at the end of Market Street built in 1898. The chef, who fled Hungary with her family as a child in 1956, is a pioneer of high quality California cuisine: in a career spanning more than 35 years, she has consistently relied on the abundance of local agriculture. Her cuisine unites American and European-Mediterranean influences, with the menu changing seasonally. “You have to respect the ingredients,” Schwertner says. “In northern California, even back in the 1980s people were very receptive to fresh, healthy products.” The ingredients for her Boulettes Larder and Boulibar restaurants are primarily from organic farms, small dairies, apiaries, and fruit orchards. Selected ingredients are available for purchase, so guests enjoy cooking with them at home.

bouletteslarder.com

“My cooking is basically very simple”.

Great food has been available in San Francisco for a long time, but it’s only recently that the west coast city has risen to the upper echelons of North America’s recognized culinary destinations. Those wishing to experience perfection in California cuisine should place themselves in the capable hands of Dominique Crenn, the first female chef in the United States to receive two Michelin stars. Crenn, a native of Versailles, France, came to San Francisco for love. She now sets her cuisine in a poetic context: instead of handing guests a fancy menu, she gives them a poem that she has composed herself. “My cooking is basically very simple,” says Crenn, “but that simplicity is itself highly complex.” Similar to literature, where only the best authors succeed in writing something deep, yet fully rounded and light on its feet. Crenn’s creations often taste different than they first appear: a Kir Royale taking the form of a filled chocolate, caviar over banana, olive-shaped pistachio sorbet. “Diners here should just sit back and let me run the show. I’m the food dominatrix around here,” says Crenn with a grin.

ateliercrenn.com

101 Years of Stylish Nights.

The Clift was considered avant-garde when it first opened in 1915 to mark the Panama-Pacific World Exhibition. Art deco chic still echoes throughout the 15-story hotel today, particularly in places like the wood-paneled Redwood Room and bar. Many interior spaces have been remodeled by star French designer Philippe Starck – such as the lobby, which contains furniture by Ray and Charles Eames, a table by Salvador Dalí, and a recliner inspired by René Magritte. In the guest rooms, the design cues are more subdued. The view of downtown from the hotel’s upper floors is breathtaking.

clifthotel.com

101 Years of Stylish Nights.

The Clift was considered avant-garde when it first opened in 1915 to mark the Panama-Pacific World Exhibition. Art deco chic still echoes throughout the 15-story hotel today, particularly in places like the wood-paneled Redwood Room and bar. Many interior spaces have been remodeled by star French designer Philippe Starck – such as the lobby, which contains furniture by Ray and Charles Eames, a table by Salvador Dalí, and a recliner inspired by René Magritte. In the guest rooms, the design cues are more subdued. The view of downtown from the hotel’s upper floors is breathtaking.

clifthotel.com

The city’s green heart.

Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the world. Originally constructed in the 1870s, its expansive lawns played host to the “Summer of Love” in 1967. Nowadays the nearly five kilometre (three-mile) long, 800-meter (875-yard) wide park stretching from Stanyan Street to the Pacific offers plenty of room for both joggers and walkers. Featuring fishing lakes, a golf course, and waterfalls, the park is never boring. One inviting route, for instance, leads from the Victorian-style greenhouses past the Herzog & de Meuron – designed de Young Museum to the Botanical Gardens. From there, it continues past sports fields and polo grounds to the buffalo paddock, and finally the beach. Anyone who takes this park seriously should plan on spending plenty of time here.

Good to know.

Shaky business

When an earthquake strikes, anyone inside a recently constructed public building has little to fear. Or so say the structural engineers. Those working in the San Francisco Bay area have to adhere to stringent building codes. And so they should – the San Andreas Fault runs just a few miles west of the city.

Rollercoaster ride.

Karl Malden and Michael Douglas treated 1980s TV audiences to many as a high-speed chase through “The Streets of San Francisco”. Regular city traffic is a lot slower. Stretches like Vermont Street, featuring five 180-degree hairpin turns inside 85 meters (280 ft.), or Filbert Street, with a 31.5% grade, are challenging to navigate even at a snail’s pace.

Bridge views

San Francisco’s most famous tourist attraction is no doubt the Golden Gate Bridge. Those wishing to savor the view of the suspension bridge have several choice outlooks to choose from. Two of the best are Crissy Field, a former army airfield in the Presidio, and the old military bunkers in the Marin Headlands.

Climate change

The San Francisco Bay area is notorious for its microclimates. It’s not uncommon for Oakland to be baking in the heat, while downtown San Francisco is comfortably mild; meanwhile visitors to the Golden Gate are shivering with cold. Some days the fog off the Pacific Ocean gets so thick that you can barely make out your hand at the end of your arm.

Academia

hole websites are dedicated to the question of which of the two elite Bay Area universities is the better. Both Stanford and UC Berkeley are among the very best in the world and have produced scores of Nobel Prize winners. One thing’s for sure – UC Berkeley admits over twice as many students as Stanford does.

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