I was watching a documentary on uranium last week and the host spent a segment in Chernobyl, wandering through the notoriously ruined city. It has a terrible beauty – birds flew through the air, trees and grass grew up through the empty streets and all the while, building windows stared back, devoid of life. It’s a cue the set designers for “I Am Legend” surely were inspired by – the post-apocalyptic urban space with nature returned; man spurned. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to walk in a place like that – architecture and infrastructure sprawling out in all directions with no one around.
In a recent late afternoon visit to the new township of Esencia in Rancho Mission Viejo, I got my wish in a slightly surreal parallel universe version of the post-apocalyptic world. What would the opposite of post-apocalyptic be? Pre-Utopic? A newly-minted town almost devoid of life with only a few caretakers ambling about on mission – the construction clean-up team of two, a street sweeper, a patrolling security guard in the distance.
Streets and sidewalks rolled evenly off in all directions, their towering lights sprouted as if ordained. Homes, some in stick phase, others clad in Tyvek and many more finished and finished and finished with carefully rendered landscapes, just-blown mulch cooling under the waning light of day, the scent funky and raisin-y, the nose careful to sample. You could stand and look in any direction and a small city unfurled itself over man-made hill & dale, with nary a person in sight. I felt like a visitor to The Truman Show’s set after hours.
As a photographer, real estate agent, parent, husband and home-owner in Orange County, I enjoyed seeing the place quietly through those lenses. The graphic lines of homes against blustery skies make for good photographs. The market potentiality of the place speaks to my outer-Realtor. The security of a home in the neighborhood and future appreciation over time as land continues to diminish in the ever-lovely OC. The well thought out interconnective spaces for play and living. So much thought and money invested in a place.
In 1889, Camillo Sitte wrote in his seminal book Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (“City Planning According to Artistic Principles”) “Discussions of systems of city planning figure among the burning issues of our day. On this, as on all topical matters, opinions are frequently at considerable variance. However, one can observe a widespread satisfaction with that which has been so well accomplished along technical lines – in respect to traffic, the advantageous use of building sites, and, especially, hygienic improvements. In contrast there is almost as prevalent a condemnation of the artistic shortcomings of modern city planing, even scorn and contempt. This is quite justified; it is a fact that much has been accomplished in technical matters, while artistically we have achieved almost nothing, modern majestic and monumental buildings being usually seen against the most awkward of public squares and the most badly divided lots.” 1
“…the ancient cities, in harmony as they were with the beauties of nature, also acted with a gentle yet irresistible power upon the temperament of the people.” 2
- p 138, The Birth of Modern City Planning, Camillo Sitte, English ed George R. Collins & Christiane Crasemann Collins, Rizzoli
- p 141, The Birth of Modern City Planning, Camillo Sitte, English ed George R. Collins & Christiane Crasemann Collins, Rizzoli
Sitte’s central theme is that urban planners had left artistic notions behind in their pursuit of order and there was a way to create living environments that enrich our lives and endure over time. I mention him here because the challenges are still with us today – how do you artfully design and build entire neighborhoods in an efficient manner while elevating beauty, increasing utility and maintaining profitability? Clearly the Mission Viejo Company, its civil planners & engineers, the merchant builder partners and the scads of architects have got the message and are doing just fine.
If you have a moment, drive out and visit Esencia in the late afternoon if you want to savor some of the quiet, before the buyers come and fill the homes and parks and roads and pools.
Here are a few photos from my dalliances there:
Looking east towards Coto de Caza across newly graded land in Esencia in Rancho Mission Viejo.
New street, new signs.
New homes perched on a sculpted ledge.
New homes in the distance with fenced, graded land in the foreground and a new sports park in the middle ground.
New homes in Esencia.
The “Reverie” models by Lyon Homes.
Homes in the “Avant” tract undergoing transformation from CalAtlantic specs to the new Lennar specs. When I visited the models, it was just after closing time but I caught the rep and asked him why there were construction crews working so late on the models – were they working on finishing touches for a launch? No – they were tearing out the CalAtlantic finishes and installing Lennar’s offerings instead. Lennar had just purchased CalAtlantic and thus was adjusting its interior finish offerings to the “EverythingIncluded” (aka “EI”) platform where the finishes are preselected for the buyer.
These guys were hard at work while I snapped away on the sports park nearby; they stopped for a quick moment and I grabbed a shot.
The sports park at Esencia.
The sports park at Esencia. A fine terraform.
A last bath of light for the construction pile. Azure, Cobalt & Topaz at Esencia.
The New Home Company’s “Cobalt” project at Esencia.
Community center dubbed “The Garage” at Esencia. Super nifty.
A community area called “The Hangout” at Esencia.
I really liked this table – what a simple, clean design. “The Hangout” at Esencia.
“The Hangout” at Esencia.
“The Hangout” at Esencia with Cobalt models in the background.
“The Hangout” at Esencia with Azure models opposite the Cobalts.
“The Hangout” at Esencia.
A northern edge of Esencia with some newly-terraformed paths, landscapes and tapered edges.