As many ideas do, this column came about through a chat over beers between the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Santa Barbara Independent. Our shared vision for this venture is to delve into and dissect the role of architects and architecture in Santa Barbara: past and present and future. Santa Barbara is one of the truly unique places in this country. This column presents an opportunity to expand the conversation about this unique place that we share. Perhaps more than any other city in the U.S., Santa Barbara has retained the legacy of architects’ work and words, as there are few U.S. cities that have been influenced by, and retained the imprint of classical antiquity as has Santa Barbara.
To guide and regularize Spanish settlements in the new world, King Philip II issued the Laws of the Indies in 1573—the first comprehensive guide to codify a city planning process and embody elements of a community general plan, which set forth every facet of creating a municipality, including this familiar clause: Colonists “shall try as far as possible to have the buildings all of one type for the sake of the beauty of the town.”
These laws were heavily influenced by the Ten Books of Architecture, written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, commonly known as Vitruvius, a Roman author and architect of the 1st century BCE, and also by Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, all of the great European Renaissance period of 1400-1550. Frs. Serra and Lasuén, both learned Franciscans, most likely had brought the pattern books of Palladio, Serlio, Alberti, and others from classical antiquity, as they developed the string of missions in Alta California, resulting in the singularly classical façade of the Mission at Santa Barbara.
It is perhaps fitting that the patron saint of architects, Santa Barbara, has had some influence upon this part of California since 1602, when Sebastián Vizcaíno survived a violent storm just offshore on the eve of her feast day and gave the place her name in honor of his survival. She is also the shared patron of artillerymen, gunsmiths, tunnellers, miners, mariners and the Italian Navy, prisoners, mathematicians, and sudden death (as many design practitioners might attest). Places said to have a strong “sense of place” have a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors, as we can attest. Places that lack a “sense of place” are sometimes referred to as “placeless” or “inauthentic,” as Gertrude Stein said about her hometown of Oakland: “There is no there there.”
Vitruvius made a familiar and famous assertion that a building must exhibit three qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be substantially constructed, beneficial to its users, and beautiful, a highly subjective evaluation in today’s world, but even he would agree that it reflects self-expression and even art. He wrote that the architect should be versed in drawing, geometry, optics (lighting), history, philosophy, music, theater, medicine, and law. Inside the confines of this column, we might add contemporary topics of environmental science, conservation, ecology, finance and real estate, architectural education, historic preservation, and topophilia — that is, a strong sense of place, which often becomes mixed with the sense of cultural identity among certain people and a love of certain aspects of such a place.
Architects, urban planners, and designers do more than see the environment; rather, they strive to feel it, to be and move within it, to grasp it with our minds, and connect with it through memories, with other locations and eras, and encourage shapes and textures that might make some specific reference to and connect with places and times that mean something to the inhabitants, and might help us to know where we are and, by extension, who we are.