Durable Growth

What Blood Sweat and Tears can teach us about mixed-use

Mixed-use building in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas

Mixed-use building in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas

(Warning: Except for the last few links, the links in this post aren’t safe for work.  It’s not language or nudity.  It’s that most of the links go to music and some of those songs may be too loud for workplaces.  Of course, you could turn off your audio, but then there’d be no reason to click on the links.)

My wife hosts occasional brunches for a small group of friends.  I understand that the gatherings are often loud and raucous, although I don’t have first-hand knowledge.  I normally depart early for weekend chores on brunch mornings, with plans to stay away until long after the last guest has departed.

But on a recent brunch Saturday, I had no chores on my list nor did I have any compelling urban explorations.  So I instead retreated to the attic to spend several hours in productive winnowing and tidying.  And to ensure that I couldn’t hear any of the hubbub from the gathering below, I dug into my aging collection of vinyl from the 1970s and cranked up the volume on the sound system that I’ve owned since college days.

Thus, I spent a morning rearranging books and listening to Blood Sweat and Tears.  I’m not sure if BS&T is my favorite rock group, but rock infused with jazz and brass is my favorite rock genre and BS&T is my favorite group within that genre, so the band has to be close to the top of my list.

(Other favorite purveyors of jazz-rock fusion are Chicago, Chase, the Ides of March, and Lighthouse.  In particular, every time I listen anew to the Chase link, the trumpet pyrotechnics give me goose bumps.)

I listen to Blood Sweat and Tears often, but usually when I’m working on another task, such as writing this blog.  Doing a mindless task such as attic organizing while BS&T played on the two-foot tall speakers of my college days (Bose 501s if anyone remembers those) caused me to fall in love with their sound all over again.

And, in the tradition of the 21st century, falling in love is a reason to do internet research on the target of one’s affection.  (Liner notes are so 20th century.)  I quickly found stuff that I either never knew or had long forgotten about the band, including that they were often derided for being a cover band.

To me, it was a head-shakingly clueless criticism.  Of course Blood Sweat and Tears was a cover band.  Indeed, they may have been the best cover band ever.  They took songs that already had an established and well-loved personality and infused the music with their own sensibilities, creating something that was new, different, and wonderful.  They wouldn’t have been the same band if they hadn’t built upon our familiarity with the tunes and then surprised us with their new versions.

Looking at their eponymous album (which was also their most successful, although I remain partial to the two follow-up albums), songwriting credits include, among many others,  Stevie Winwood for “Smiling Phases”, Berry Gordy, Jr. for “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, Eric Clapton for “Sunshine of Your Love”, and even French doodler Erik Satie whose work was interpreted for the opening and closing movements.

Plus, although “God Bless the Child” will forever be a Billie Holliday song, the BS&T version is startling and gripping in its interpretation.

Of course Blood Sweat and Tears was a cover band.  And we should be forever thankful that they gave us the covers rather than playing only their own compositions.  That decision has greatly enhanced the musical memories for many in my generation.

This brings me back around to urbanism.   (Perhaps you were beginning to wonder if I could connect those dots?)

Mixed-use buildings, with residential over streetfront retail, educational, or public uses, are a core element of urbanism.  There are essential roles for small-lot single family homes and missing middle housing, but a mixed-use core, where residents can meet friends for beverages, buy broccoli, or catch transit are the essential heart of many urbanist enclaves.

But, despite the vital role of mixed use, the architecture proposed is often uninspiring.  Perhaps it’s an unavoidable result of the combined effects of height limitations, building codes, parking requirements, and contemporary construction techniques, but many mixed use buildings seem to differ only in the detailing.  The newly proposed Haystack Landing project in Petaluma is a recent example.

I’d support the development of mixed-use buildings if they looked like Quonset huts, but I’d loved to be inspired by creative architecture that builds on the history of the concept.  Thus, it was with anticipation that I learned of the involvement of noted Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly in the mixed-use redevelopment of the former Vallco Shopping Center in Cupertino.   I was hopeful that his team would bring fresh eyes to the concept, offering a vision that could change the look of mixed use elsewhere in the country.

I was disappointed.  The Vinoly team put forth a plan with vast areas of green roofs, including a vineyard, covering a mixed-use neighborhood.  It was a creative plan, but didn’t push the concept of mixed use forward in a helpful direction.

To begin, I doubt the project can ever be built, with the likely construction costs beyond the limits of financial feasibility, even for the Silicon Valley.  And even if it is built, it would seem to be a massive construction liability lawsuit in the making.  But most importantly, it’s not a concept that can be exported.  It relies on the extreme financial realities of the Silicon Valley.

I had hoped for a Blood Sweat and Tears cover of the mixed use concept, a new and creative approach to an old favorite that would attract a wide audience.  Instead, I got a weird tune that, even if performed once, will never be played again.  And that’s a shame.

Shaking my head, I’m heading back to the attic to dig deeper into my BS&T archives.

A regular reader recently forwarded a link on technological advances that could transform urbanism.  Many of the concepts were intriguing, although I also feared that technology, not urbanism, was becoming the star.  I’ll discuss in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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