Looking for Good Architecture in Napa

Napa County wineries are pushing the limits of design, throwing money at their facilities and tasting rooms to attract tourist. Disneyesque marketing demands convention, not artistry. The Napa County Planning Commission walks a delicate line here but tends to bow to ordinariness.

This real question is how architecture should be judged. Local design review committees, even with the brightest community’s designers, can dumb-down a building to emasculate it of character and boldness. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for municipalities to demand, let alone encourage, good architecture. But sometimes the best prevails, against all odds.

Napa City’s stringent design review processes and their Planning Commission has taken a decidedly ambitious redirection towards a more contemporary look. But, is it working? The Municipal regulations are archaic and designed to encourage mediocrity.

The Soscol Corridor, also known as Auto Row, has produced some interesting new buildings. Unfortunately, saddled with ambiguous requirements and pushy clients, the overall design is chaotic and messy. Ironically, the most unique building on Soscol is the 1950s auto dealer, Hanlees at 333 Soscol Ave. Check it out at

In the Bay Area, a recent San Francisco flap has bristled the architectural industry. Modern architecture enemies have lobbied President Trump to ban all new Federal buildings that don’t look like classic Beaux-Arts style. The most hated is the San Francisco Federal Building, the controversial 18 story structure of punctuated steel screens and tilted surfaces. The building, design by Thom Mayne, Morphosis Architects, challenges senses and questions one’s aesthetic assumptions. The building has flaws but nonetheless provides fresh architectural vision. Check out:

Believe it or not, The Official Executive Order is called “Making Federal Buildings Great Again”.This harkens back to Hitler’s reversal of the post WWI German modern arts and architecture movement. Hitler insisted Classical Renaissance architecture would lead Germany’s 1,000 Year Reich, eradicating anything contemporary. Such demonizing an art or style only produces blind uniformity.

When the Transamerica Building design was first unveiled in 1972, architects and the public signed countless petitions against it. Their complaint? It’s ugly, stands out too much and didn’t fit with the neighborhood. The same occurred when Gustav Eiffel proposed a bizarre looking tower in Paris. Both have since become iconic images of their respective cities. Good design requires bold statements and a lot of nerve.

However, there hasn’t been many new buildings in San Francisco worthy of a debate lately. San Francisco design proposals are so beat up by local vigilante designers and City staff that they no longer reflect uniqueness or challenging ideas.

Does money make good design? Here are the most expensive recently built SF structures with their values, and one critic’s comments:

· The Apple “Park”- $3.55 Billion. World’s biggest Donut is called a park, but public are not allowed.

· The Salesforce Tower- $1.69 Billion. Tall and lacking character. A Coit Tower knock off.

· Transbay Transit Center- $2.3 Billion. World’s most expensive Bus Station strives for uniqueness and the garden is spectacular.

· Westfield Valley Fair Mall-$1.14 Billion. -Really? Bricks and mortar?

· Chase Stadium- $994 Million. A big round hatbox and boring.

· The Exchange- $789 Million. Great character with a real step forward in the Mission District.

Most of San Francisco architectural proposals have been predictably designed to avoid challenging neighborhood NIMBYs and design review boards.

Downtown Napa with the new hotels are setting a rigorous modern design standard. The very contemporary Archer is still a box of rooms. People love or hate the interior Atrium, and that’s good. What makes architecture essential is controversy. Ya’ love it or hate it.

With all the wineries and restaurants competing for tourist recognition and dollars, it’s hard to have a “beauty contest” listing of the best winery design. Perhaps the best design is as little as possible. That is, a structure that blends with our bucolic Napa countryside while minimizing its visual impact. Hoping this is not an advertisement for the winery, Artesa Winery comes to mind. Built on top of the small knoll and buried into the hill, you cannot see it until you are at its front stairs. It is to me one of the most perfect examples of blending a building with its environment.

This is only one person’s opinion. I welcome your recommendations at

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB Craiker Architects have received over 30 Bay Area awards while designing sustainably for over 40 years.