An Alternate-Timeline San Francisco, Via Your iPhone

In the bizarro version of our foggy city, there's a casino on Alcatraz. Or maybe it's a Native American museum. It depends on what unbuilt project you want to fall in love with.

Photo Courtesy Of SPUR Now, it's known as AT&T Park. But in 1979, Christopher Grubbs thought it should look a little something ... a-like this. 

When you live in a city long enough, you start to feel like you're living among ghosts: the cafe that used to be on this corner, the beautiful row houses that made way for the modern skyscraper. But one exhibition and iPhone app, developed for New York but recently upgraded to include San Francisco, focuses not on what was, but what might have been: the often-crazy architectural designs and city-planning proposals that were never built, yet affected the evolution of the city.

In 2009 Brett Snyder and Irene Chang developed Museum of the Phantom City as a way to "allow city dwellers to see visionary but unbuilt work on the projects' intended sites. We were interested in the way cellphones could transform the city into a museum without walls," he says, allowing "layers of speculation to be part of the city's present."

The way they built the app left room for partners to add their own cities, so SPUR, a member-supported nonprofit that creates and runs various programs to promote "good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area," was able to use local archives to choose visionary proposals that either were shelved long ago or haven't come to fruition yet. Originally, the app required a user to walk around the city and "unlock" that site's information on-site, but another new innovation is that anyone, anywhere can see the projects.

Their current exhibition, Unbuilt San Francisco, provides the content for the local version of the app. A collaboration between AIA San Francisco, the Center for Architecture + Design, the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley, the California Historical Society, the SF Public Library, and SPUR, it sprawls across five venues, and the current issue of SPUR's magazine, The Urbanist, serves as its catalog.

The ideas in the app range from the "are you kidding me?" to the "argh! I want that to be built!" and every emotion in between. As Snyder puts it, these ideas, even though they remain in the ether, "allow us to compare and contrast how we live with the ideals and ideas of imaginative visions." Radical ideas, he says, "contaminate" the collective consciousness by "planting seeds that envision alternate ways of living." So OK, every idea doesn't come to fruition. But the very act of suggesting something totally out of the ordinary is what makes room for something somewhat out of the ordinary.

It's free at the App Store, and you can view much of the exhibition online, via the links above.

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