What do a fashion designer, landscape architect, ayahuasca evangelist and shark conservation biologist share in common?
On the outside, not much! But each observes a different facet of beauty, the theme of our March issue. The late Lee Radziwill famously said that “taste is an emotion.” In our view, beauty is not just a pretty face — it’s a feeling. And rather than lavish this edition with beautiful people wearing beautiful things (although we certainly don’t disappoint on that front), the Gazette takes a moment to celebrate a few of the unsung artists who lift our spirits to enhance life’s beauty. We also look for beauty in unexpected places. A windswept California landscape that lacks greenery (but not soul). A squid that changes colors at the “speed of thought.” An ancient hallucinogen. (Oh yes, we went there.)
We know beauty when we see it and feel our hearts dancing in response. Naturally, San Franciscans are moved by the City itself — when the light hits just right on a delightfully old Victorian, or when the sun briefly finds its way through the fog onto our faces like a perfect gift from the universe. (No offense, Karl). To that end, Jeanne Cooper identifies the Bay Area’s most striking vistas. Turn the page to see if your favorite view passed muster, and tour Andrew Gn’s Paris, Andrea Cochran’s minimalist chic and master sommelier Morgan Harris’ recommendation for a pinot noir defined by its “crazy elusiveness.”
Prepare to be intrigued ..
10 Dreamy Views
The building blocks of the Bay Area’s impressive views are simple: the Bay and its bridges, ridges and peaks in seasonal gold or green, the vast ocean and a panoply of architectural styles to engage the eye. Add that trickster Karl the Fog, who can make entire neighborhoods disappear or just wreathe them in billowy white, like the cotton-ball artwork of a preschooler, and we’re guaranteed a never-ending source of visual fascination. Here are 10 of my favorite vistas, some well-known but gorgeous nonetheless.
1 Atop Twin Peaks
Seen from 922 feet, especially in the soft light of sunset, the bay becomes a tranquil pond lined by undulating hills, while the city appears furrowed by forest
2 From Cityscape Lounge, Hilton San Francisco Union Square
Like Twin Peaks with cocktails, the Hilton’s 46th floor bar defines “sweeping views” (Golden Gate Bridge included) but also showcases South of Market’s busy freeways and building boom.
3 From Westin St. Francis
An exhilarating glass-elevator ride, time-traveling from ante-bellum Union Square to modern sky-scrapers, leads to spectacular views (especially of Coit Tower) from the 32nd floor Golden Gate Room.
4 From Lyon Street and Broadway, San Francisco
I rarely hike Lyon Street’s 322 steps, but my heart always pounds faster at the sight of the Palace of Fine Arts rising above the Bay far below
5 From Inn Above Tide, Sausalito
From the private decks of this lodge next to the ferry landing, the Bay seems to widen, while toy-sized San Francisco shimmers in the distance.
6 In the Marin Headlands
Out of many compelling vantage points here, stand-ing above the Golden Gate Bridge, walk-ing out to Point Bonita, and overlook-ing Stinson Beach remain highlights.
7 From Mountain Home Inn, Mill Valley
Hiking Mount Tamalpais offers numerous vistas, but brunch on the deck here afterward, gazing across redwoods and Richardson Bay to Tiburon and beyond, is doubly rewarding
8 West of I-280 near Crystal Springs Reservoir
Driving between the Peninsula and San Francisco, I’m always impressed by the broad sweep of forest-covered hills and the long, serene reservoir beneath, especially on misty mornings.
9 Point Montara Lighthouse
San Mateo County’s coast is rife with Instagram-worthy images, among them this 30-foot beacon, the rugged coves below and the immense Pacific; sunsets are showstoppers.
10 Atop Mount Diablo
California’s grandeur comes into focus here, including rippling Bay Area ranges, the sprawling Central Valley and mirage-like glimpses of the Sierra foothills
— Jeanne Cooper
Andrew Gn: Between Eternity and Spontaneity
Andrew Gn prowls the streets of Paris in search of beauty. Like the poet Charles Baudelaire a century and a half before, the designer finds it in many places, and it is always united by a certain duality of spirit. Beauty has something in it of the eternal, Baudelaire wrote, as well as something that stamps it with a certain time and place. Which is another way of saying fashion.
Gn discovers this mysterious mixture of the timeless and timely in everything from street art and graphic T-shirts to baroque architecture and interiors. An aesthetic omnivore, his homes blend 18th-century furniture with contemporary art, and his cinematic tastes run from the rococo powder and wigs of Dangerous Liaisons to the stark futurism of the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. “I try to see as much as I can,” he says, “and then let these images and emotions get stored in my subconscious mind. And I must say I’m blessed with a very good memory.”
Though based in Paris, Gn hails from Singapore, attended boarding school in England, and has developed a loyal San Francisco following via regular trunk shows. Although the Internet and social media have made fashion global, and he sees little difference in the response of his clients in each corner of the globe, he maintains for himself a distinctly Eastern perspective.
“I’m really Asian at heart,” Gn says. “The Chinese may spend a lot of time on the same thing, but that’s because they want to perfect it.” He cites the craft of Chinese ceramics, slowly perfected by artisans under the direction of the dynasties across the centuries. “It comes down to a harmony between what you might call the glaze and the form.”
This approach shows up in his own work through attention to detail. “You have the overall image of a garment,” Gn says, “and then you go through all the details the wearer will notice: the fabric, the intricacies of lining, a piece of embroidery — all those things play an all-important role in perfection.”
Like a jazz musician or athlete, Gn puts in the training and preparation in order to allow his art to come out naturally. The magical melange comes down to eternity and perfection on one side, and the temporal and spontaneous on the other. “A dress should be fashionable and of-the-moment, but also so beautiful that it can be kept for a long time. So instead of buying a lot, we should buy less, but more beautiful.”
And we should also be cognizant of the notion that beauty is ultimately something that is experienced, which is another way of saying that it’s felt. “Beauty is something very emotional, something that you feel,” the designer explains. “And today it’s also more adventurous and more challenging than ever, as we’re living in a world that’s very diversified and global.
I take inspiration from everywhere,” he concludes, “and that’s because I need to be inspired in order to go on working.”
— Christian Chensvold
The Power of Minimalism
One of the most highly acclaimed landscape architects in Northern California, with a raft of accolades every year since founding her namesake San Francisco firm in 1998, Andrea Cochran still finds beauty in the simplicity of the region’s natural scenery.
“There are stretch-es of driving on Highway 128 between Calistoga and Healdsburg where it’s just rolling hills with oak trees dotted on it. You focus on each tree because they’re so beautiful and sculptural,” says Cochran, who moved here from the East Coast in 1981. “My brother comes here from New Jersey and he doesn’t see the beauty — he thinks it looks too parched, but to each his own. I’m drawn to the minimalism of it. Now when I go back to the East Coast, I feel like I’m being smothered by trees or green.”
Cochran also sees beauty in California’s light and sense of space, and their combined influence on artists such as Robert Irwin, Walter De Maria and Richard Serra, who have in turn influenced her work. “There’s kind of a strength and power to this place,” she notes. “It’s not small and fussy. It’s big and open and the vistas are large.”
Creating beauty — whether soothing as at Stanford University’s Windhover Meditation Center, or thrilling as at a cliffside home on Telegraph Hill — is more of an “editing process,” Cochran says. “It’s stripping away the unnecessary and bringing it back to essential qualities of space and place. It’s about highlighting the quality of the place, making the invisible to become visible.”
— Jeanne Cooper
A Master Sommelier on Wine’s Jolie Laide Appeal
As head sommelier at Angler, Saison’s sought-after new offshoot on the Embarcadero, Morgan Harris has a veritable encyclopedia of vino to recommend to patrons — but wouldn’t describe all of its offerings as beautiful.
“A lot of beauty in wine for me lies in getting to the essentials of something and eschewing any sense of veneer or the hand of the maker in the finished product,” says Harris, one of only a half-dozen certified master sommeliers in San Francisco.
While even “ugly,” or rustic, wines may be delicious and pair well with food — meaty Syrah, the salty Austrian varietal Juhfark and acidic Assyrtiko from Santorini among them, Harris notes — he says wines also become beautiful as they age. Bordeaux, for example, “are these broad-shouldered, awkward tannic wines that aren’t a whole lot of fun to drink in their youth, but give them 30 years of bottle age, and they turn into these ethereal, perfumed, delicious, delicate examples of wine.”
The Pinot Noir of Burgundy might start out prettier, with “all these floral, perfume aromatics like cherry blossom and cinnamon stick,” Harris says, but “part of its beauty is its crazy elusiveness. Even the wines you drink frequently from producers you like don’t always show up the way you want.”
Currently spending 60 to 80 hours a week at Angler, Harris says he also appreciates his beautiful vista overlooking the Bay and Treasure Island. At his previous post in New York, “I worked across from a 40-foot Jumbotron.” Nature and culture have both influenced his ideals for beauty, says Harris. Now 33, the Seattle native spent time in Alaska and studied theater at Boston’s Emerson College before starting his current career.
“I spent a lot of my youth in the wilderness, including two summers in southeast Alaska, and those experiences were huge. Traveling in Europe, going to great museums of the world and the classical arts was a big portion of the development of my sense of aesthetics as well,” he says. “You need to go out into the world to see it — you can’t necessarily do it from a desk.”
— Jeanne Cooper
The Just City
Visionary urban planner Toni Griffin views beauty through a unique lens: As an experience. But one that should be available to everyone.
“As an urban planner, I define beauty as the ability to create spaces and places that bring people some register of joy, some positive emotional reaction, some invitation to en-gage,” says Griffin, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and founder of Urban Planning for the American City, in New York. “In that way, beauty is not an aesthetic but also an experiential outcome.”
Griffin has long advocated for what she calls the “Just City,” which includes social justice as an essential element of the planning and design process.In San Francisco, she points to Dolores Park as a place that embodies this concept. The 16-acre refuge, she says, is not so pristine that people feel they can’t use it. It’s configured in an approach-able and adaptable way. And it feels welcoming to all.
But her favorite example is Crown Fountain in her home-town, Chicago — a city she de-scribes as “still one of the most racially segregated in our country.” The fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, features two 50-foot digital towers, separated by a long, shallow pool. The towers are lit up with the faces of Chicagoans of every age, race and gender. Children play in the pool. Parents of all races mingle alongside it. “This is one of the most exquisite examples of beauty,” says Griffin. “It’s beauty that has intentionally built into it the notion of bridging divides, breaking down notions of racial segregation, and creating a space where every difference is accepted.”
— Laura Hilgers
From Micro to Macro
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and when you’re a scientist, that’s probably more true than in any other circumstance. Spending years studying something that most laypeople wouldn’t even notice, let alone love, teaches you to appreciate the beauty in the mechanism, the makeup, or the movement of an object. Four scientists told us about what they find beautiful in their research areas.
Adam Becker Astrophysicist UC Berkeley
Stellar nucleosynthesis is just a fancy way of saying that stars build atoms. More specifically: Basically all of the elements on the peri-odic table aside from the first two (hydrogen and helium) come from stars. (Those came from the Big Bang, as did a really small amount of lithium, the third element, but that’s it.) All stars build atoms slowly during their lifetimes, by fusing lighter elements into heavier ones, but the biggest stars also create elements quickly and violently at the end of their lives, when they implode or collide with other stars. So, nearly everything in your everyday life comes from a star — the oxygen you breathe, the calcium in your bones, the carbon in your food and your body, even the gold in the ring on your finger. We are surrounded by starstuff. Indeed, as both Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchell said, we are star-stuff. And that’s a beautiful idea.
Sarah McAnulty Molecular and Cell Biologist The University of Connecticut
It may not be apparent from the calamari on your plate, but living squid are one of the most beautiful animals on earth because they can change color at the speed of thought, thanks to their brain’s control over their skin cells. This skin has two colorful layers — the top has many balls of pigment called chromatophores that expand and contract to form pat-terns for camouflage and communication. The bottom layer contains cells called iridophores, appropriately named for their iridescent shine. These cells can change color by bending light that reflects off them to meet your eye. To control the color reflected, these cells change shape to appear pink, green, purple and blue. Squid can seem to sparkle in the sunlight, and iridophores are the structures we have to thank for these gorgeous light displays.
Dr. Franck Polleux Neuroscientist Columbia Zuckerman Institute
Mitochondria, a vital organelle that exists by the thousands in each of our 37 trillion cells, are the cells’ energy producers and usually look like long tubes. But inside neurons in our brain they can take on a smaller, spherical shape, like golf balls. The unique shape of these mitochondria isn’t just a curiosity: It serves an important purpose. Neurons are unique among cell types; they have tendrils that expand outward from their body. … In fact, many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, affect mitochondria’s shape. This surprising role for mitochondria in the brain also stands in contrast to what we are taught in school. Mitochondria are supposed to have one job: energy production. But in neurons, they appear to have another, specialized role — showing that this ancient and complex organelle still has some secrets yet to be revealed.
David Shiffman Shark Conservation Biologist Simon Fraser University
Most people don’t think of sharks as beautiful, but these animals’ form is so perfectly suited for their environment that they haven’t changed much in hundreds of millions of years — there were animals you’d recognize as sharks swim-ming in the oceans before there were dinosaurs (or even trees) on land! Their body form, their denticle-covered skin that helps them move through the water, their light and flexible cartilage skeleton, their amazing senses including the ability to sense bioelectric fields of prey hiding under the sand. Watching an animal powerful enough to bite a dolphin in half swim gracefully and effortlessly through the water makes you rethink not only where you stand in the food chain, but your place in the world. If that’s not beauty, I don’t know what is.
— Erin Biba
The Beauty of Letting Go
In the medieval science of alchemy, there are two methods for bringing about the transformation of the soul. The so-called dry path involves fasting, solitude, darkness, and other ascetic extremes to bring about a divine revelation of self and cosmos.
But at the proverbial fork in the road lies also the wet path, which may make use of magical stimulants to facilitate spiritual epiphanies. Ayahuasca, a psycho-active brew native to the Amazon basin, is experiencing rising popularity as a means of bringing about inner growth. For those who find the idea of an acid trip terrifying and don’t like the idea of ingesting hallucinogenic fungi, ayahuasca’s shaman-led mystical experience is an alluring alternative, offering the chance to see world and self in a whole new kaleidoscopic light.
Although ayahuasca is illegal in the United States (save for a few Native American church-es allowed to dispense it), users refer to it as “medicine” rather than a drug. Its primary active ingredient is DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is produced naturally in the brain and is believed to produce the visions of tunnels, white lights, angels and other collective tropes reported by people who have undergone near-death experiences. Although the ayahuasca brew includes DMT, the two are sometimes confused, as DMT can be produced synthetically and smoked, providing a 10-minute trip that can be a good introduction for those who’ve never experienced a mind-altered state. Ayahuasca, however, is consumed in liquid form and provides an experience that lasts for hours. Some stretch it out for a week of intensive therapy, and there’s a veritable cottage industry of psychotropic tourism in which enlightenment-seeking pilgrims journey to Peru and spend a week doing ayahuasca the way normal people spend a week in Hawaii snorkeling.
For the archetypal experience, however, one should experience ayahuasca in the primordial jungle, says Dario Nardi, editor of the 2018 tome Facets of Ayahuasca: A Guide to Journeys of Healing, Insight and Growth. People who sign up for shaman-led ayahuasca excursions to Peru, he says, seek to escape their known environment, connect with nature and access the dark regions of their deepest self for a week’s holiday. This gut-wrenching process (regurgitating is part of the experience), is worth it when you consider what people are trying to cure: a suffocating sense of being buried by modern life, cut off from heart, soul, subconscious, nature, god — whatever any ayahuasca imbiber wants to call it. “People feel weighed down and disconnected in our very conflict-based society,” says Nardi, “and their needs are not being met through normal psycho-logical and spiritual channels.”
Although awareness of ayahuasca is growing through word of mouth and light media cover-age, the total number of human beings who have experienced the potion is only in the low tens of thousands, says Nardi. That’s a tiny fraction, for example, of the total number of humans who’ve been drunk since the invention of alcohol. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because its proponents — who are more often Gen Xers than baby boomers — are seeking to avoid the negative con-notations of the psychedelic generation. “There is a conscious desire to stay away from the stigma of the ’60s,” says Nardi. “Ayahuasca is also not a fun experience you do with friends to chill out. No one says they’re going to go do some psychotherapy for fun.”
The world’s wisdom traditions teach that the psyche (which is the unified conscious and unconscious mind) is our connection to the higher realities of the cosmos. The experience of ayahuasca is part doctor’s couch and part sacred temple. “It’s a bit like religion and a bit like psychotherapy,” says Nardi. “You come in with an intention or goal, and go through an interview.” Most shaman-led excursions in South America include a third preparatory part: bungee jumping. “So the whole thing is a very physical experience that can be terrifying and tremendously relieving at the same time.”
Unlike an overindulgence in alcohol, the experience of ayahuasca is remembered. The hope is that it will plant a seed in the subconscious that will slowly blossom and bring about the desired transformation. Scientific research has shown that ayahuasca promotes neurogenesis, Nardi says, or the creation of new brain cells that will fire and wire together based on the therapeutic experience, paving the way for new ways of think-ing and feeling. Whether it’s facing fears, dredging up childhood memories, or discovering the divine spark within, the experience of ayahuasca can create a lasting framework for life going forward. “The big thing at first is that it changes a person’s subjective experience of daily life,” says Nardi. And one of the most noticeable, he adds, is that people return from their ayahuasca vacation to find they no longer get so riled up by the news or drawn into pointless social media feuds that accomplish nothing. Now that’s worth traveling to the jungle for.
— Christian Chensvold
A Bittersweet Note
Curious, isn’t it, how much our sense of musical beauty is entwined with feelings of emotional pain? As Elton John put it, sad songs say so much
Violinist Melissa Kleinbart finds Bach transcendent, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 otherworldly, and many passages in Mahler’s symphonies to convey “feelings of tenderness and intensity beyond words.” As much as she loves performing large orchestral pieces, she can’t resist the intimacy of chamber music and lieder. “One of my favorite song cycles is Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann, based on poems by Heinrich Heine. My favorite of the songs is No. 12. Before any words are sung, there is an immediate sense of yearning that comes from syncopated notes in the piano line, and one is quickly drawn into the mood of pain and longing for a lost love. Schumann uses unique harmonic shifts to bring out certain key words in the song, and writes the most sublime piano line to carry on the feeling of anguish once the words have ended. It is at once heart-wrenching and sublime, and transports me to faraway places every time I hear it.”
As a high school student, San Francisco Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin would attend music camps in the mountains. It was there she experienced many life-defining firsts: first time away from home, first kiss, and first successful audition. Then there was the world premiere in which a piece of music moved her from her trembling fingertips down to her deepest core. “It was here that Franz Schubert reached across the span of time with his String Quintet in C major,” she says, “and revealed that music could express all the joys and sorrows that life held in wait.” Each time she plays the piece, with its majestic slow movement, she experiences a sense of love, loss, yearning, suffering and redemption. “Written at the end of his life while holding death at bay,” she says, “the journey begins with a radiant sunrise, gives way to heart-wrenching turbulence, and ascends to heaven with the most intimate, sublime sadness in all of music.”
As expected, horn player Jessica Valeri, also with SF Symphony, struggles to name one piece more beautiful than all the others, but does hold a special place for the “Summit” movement from Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. “The piece describes an alpine ascent at sunrise,” she says, “complete with thunderstorm, traversing a treacherous glacier, herds of cows, and finally descending into night. The entire program can be a metaphor not only for an epic hike, but for life itself.”
— Christian Chensvold
The Delicate Surgical Magic of Dr. Evan Ransom
What is beautiful? To the mother of Gael Salazar Montenegro, it was seeing her son’s face whole.
Gael was 11 months old when he and his mother made the 22-hour journey, last April, from their remote village in the Amazon region to Ica, Peru. They came so that he could under-go free surgery by a team of American medical professionals, on a mission with the nonprofit Healing the Children, to repair a protrusion the size of a cherry between his nose and upper lip. The protrusion was the result of Gael having been born with a bilateral cleft palate and lip. Without the surgery, he’d have trouble talking or eating solid foods. He’d also face a lifetime of discrimination for his looks.
Evan Ransom, a San Francisco plastic and reconstructive surgeon, performed the three-hour-plus surgery on Gael and says that the case was one of the most challenging he’s ever seen. When Gael’s mother saw the boy’s face afterward, she broke into tears. The protrusion was gone. Her son now had a chance to live a normal life.
Gael was just one of about 80 children that Ransom and his team operated on that week, all of them with cleft chins, cleft palates or deformed or absent ears (a condition known as microtia). For children like Gael, says Ransom, this surgery can be a “life-changing experience.”
“The way that I see beauty come out in my patients is intimately related to self-confidence,” says Ransom. “I want people to project to the world how they feel on the inside rather than be hung up on what they perceive as — or what society has told them — the things that don’t look right.”
Ransom, who graduated from Columbia University’s medical school, was drawn to re-constructive surgery for its beauty. “It’s probably the most satisfying, from an artistic or aesthetic perspective, of any surgical discipline,” he says. In the Bay Area, he devotes much of his practice to standard and far more lucrative cosmetic procedures, such as Botox and fillers and giving affluent women the perfect small upturned nose, a la Nicole Kidman (a favorite among his Caucasian patients). “My goal is to make people look like a slightly younger, more refreshed version of themselves,” he says.
But he also works with Operation Access, which provides free surgical care to under-served communities, and FACE TO FACE, which provides surgical and nonsurgical treatment for facial injuries resulting from domestic violence. Working with FACE TO FACE, Ransom has repaired the shredded earlobe of a woman whose ex-partner pulled out her earrings in a fight. He’s also done reconstructive surgery on a woman whose former partner broke her nose several times. For these women, beauty runs much deeper. “They will often see the injury and it’s a trigger for them,” he says. “With surgery, the emotional trauma doesn’t necessarily go away. But when you restore them to their pre-injury state, as far as that’s possible, it helps them to overcome some of the trauma and move past it. You give someone back that internal image of themselves.”
— Laura Hilgers
As a native San Franciscan, I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a place where beauty is never in short supply. A place that is often blanketed in fog hides within it a rich blend of history and culture. One minute you’re staring wide-eyed at the wall-sized murals of the Mission, or getting lost in the narrow streets of Chinatown, and the next minute you could be at the very top of Turtle Hill, or find yourself in a place where 19,596 people chant “Waarrriiioorrs” in unison.
It’s more than reasonable to say that these places capture the essence of the beauty the Bay Area has to offer; however, the real beauty is found in the diverse stories of the individuals that call this place home.
When I was 21, I was diagnosed with bone cancer. The word “shocked” was an understatement. I was young, active, healthy, and I just couldn’t comprehend how this was the hand I was dealt because the diagnosis contradicted how I lived my life. One second I’m a junior in college and the next I’m in chemo for eight months. I’m away from my friends, I have to amputate my right leg, and I get rediagnosed over and over again. The 21-year-old Xavier would have a hard time explaining what beauty meant to him because the world around him seemed dark and ugly. However, at 24 I have gained more of a mature perspective of what beauty really means.
Beauty is resilient. Beauty is never giving up even if you receive heartbreaking news over and over again. It’s shattering, but choosing to pick up the pieces and remaking yourself into something better. Beauty is walking the stage at graduation and more so seeing your mom’s face as you receive a diploma. Beauty is the person you love most on this earth refusing to leave even if the waters of life get rough. Beauty is not running from the storm but laughing while thunderclouds of doubt and fear try to drench your spirits. Beauty is not fragile. Beauty is the product of every second of struggle. It’s realizing that not everything can be beautiful and things that are beautiful come from the most difficult moments.
Butterflies have to break out of their own cocoons for people to see their wings, and coal must do well under pressure to become a diamond. In the last few years my life has gone through the most extreme circumstances, and while I’m not totally cured, I still feel this fire inside me that wants, even needs, to keep pushing myself each day. I believe the best is yet to come for me and all the dreams I have are still well within my grasp. Sure, people can throw out all sorts of statistics and facts, but I’m more than a number and no matter how much time I have left, I’m going to make the most of it. And perhaps that’s what beauty truly is.
Days after submitting this essay to the Nob Hill Gazette, Xavier Echon died peacefully on January 13 at home with his family. He was 24 years old. Make a donation to Echon’s memory at makeagift.ucsf.edu/childrenscancer
— Xavier Echon