Musings on The People’s Palace

By Ellen Sebastian Chang

Polaroid photo of teenage black girl holding a small brown dog in front of a cinder block house in the sunlight.
Photo by Rosetta Hicks
[ID: Ellen Sebastian Chang (age 14) with shoulder-length pressed hair, wearing glasses and a sleeveless orange sundress. She is smiling while holding a brown and white chihuahua dog while standing in front of the cinder block house built by her grandfather. There is a low row of flowers in front of the house.]

Architecture is the ancient global art of the structures of a place revealing the functional and beautiful needs of the people of the earth. Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre is also an ancient art that portrays the living bodies of a place in motion, flight, and proximity to the stories that become enshrined built and unbuilt places upon the earth.

Joanna Haigood describes her collaboration for The People’s Palace as “an artistic intervention and dialogue with the architectural iconography with the intention to insert the communities and the narratives that are excluded from representation, and to provide a more accurate picture of who and what defines San Francisco.” I recall the architectural ideas of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues who crafted a Zen like approach towards the built world noting the beauty and soul of architecture is born from the people as a “living pattern language…A quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed.” Zaccho Dance Theatre is also a pattern language soulfully seeding for decades: dancing, singing, speaking within the natural world of trees, butterflies, and bees as an expression of the interdependent unity of all things; and a researched choreography interacting with site specific structures to reveal forgotten enforced labor or cultural contributions of enslaved Africans, silos of urban renewal and gentrification, sites of love and sustenance and the “ghost architecture” that inhabits our memories.  Zaccho Dance Theatre’s visions are spiritually engineered within the divine site of the body as an ongoing reminder that we, the culturally diverse peoples, have always been here as sacred stewardship, valuable knowledge, and creative contributions.


Place. People. Progress. Palace.

Now as acknowledgement of Then.

Before all of us, this Place was soil, sand, river, bay, live oak, buckeye, poppy, elderberry, swallowtail, sea turtle, otter, mule deer, badger

and more.

This Place birthed its People as Muekma, Ramaytush, Rumsen, Miwok, Mutsen, Awaswas

and more.

In the quest for more,

a People birthed of another Place came sailing, marching, and charging, as

Spanish, Colonizers, Settlers, Prospectors, or Westward Ho’s.

With an intention to occupy Place and reimagine People birthed in Place as

savages, slaves, chattel, coolies, wetbacks, or sweetly as salt of the Earth,

in need of control and management.

This was now a Place in the process of Progress.

Called it New World, Yerba Buena, Gold Mountain, Barbary Coast, The Paris of the West, First World, Fog City, The City but never call it Frisco or San Fran.

The Palace[1] is built and rebuilt as reflection of the beauty and aesthetics of occupying people who came sailing, marching, and charging in the quest for more.

Here we are on the steps of the Palace….

In this “now” can we rematriate ourselves within and without Palace?


Architecture. Public. Private.

“Neoclassicism in the US is directly related to the construction of whiteness. It was whiteness that was sought after in the many plantation houses that chose the style, justifying it as an emulation of ancient Greek ‘culture’ to separate themselves from the Indigenous peoples whose land was stolen, and the enslaved African people forced to build and work in them. Thomas Jefferson’s excitement with the work of the Beaux Arts school in Paris was motivated by a desire to make America ‘European,’ and white.”[2]

Everyone and all bodies, in all cultures and societies, engages with the built world of architecture and interior design. Those high-minded ideas and concepts are simply a built place made functional or useful, beautiful, or becoming, sacred, or cherished. A place fashioned from human imaginations designed in an alchemical collaboration with the divine materials of the world, be it mud, be it clay, be it straw, bamboo, or redwood, be it stone or steel, be it glittering glass or reinforced concrete. Let us, also, humbly remember that all creatures design and build; perhaps this is the heart of our shared planet, a garden palace, where we all began before we invented cities and city halls.

Here we are in 2024 in the San Francisco Bay Area, within this modern urban city landscape where our relationships to land, architecture, interior design and built structures are strictly legislated and monitored by the bureaucratic bodies controlling and managing the status quo. What avenue is open to us people, citizens, and the public, who still have dreams (plans) for how we want our lives to be dignified and respected in this place we call home? Do all avenues and roads lead to City Hall, aka “The People’s Palace?”[3] This Beaux Arts structure is the symbolic locus for the paperwork for legitimacy of our dreamed (planned) lives: marriage, birth, and death certificates, permits for buildings or inspections, starting and closing a business, public health, animal welfare and more.

Zaccho Dance Theatre is inviting us into the Palace as a site of recognition, reflection, and creative civic responses. The People’s Palace is the location we reimagine our relationship to public and civic spaces: How we love us. How we belong and make beautiful public[4] space together, as an act so compelling that fear of difference dissolves within our embraced wonders, curiosities, and possibilities. We are the original architects, interior designers, landscapers, and gardeners. We, also, have an aesthetic rooted in our patterns of the language of beauty and morality. There is an Indigenous wisdom and skills that lies dormant in all of us together.

“…we have to understand that imagination shapes the world and so those of us who have been oppressed by how others imagine the world, the supremacists the patriarchs, the war mongers, the capitalists, we have to imagine something so compelling that it moves us beyond and out of the compliance with our own entrapment in these systems that do not love us.”  adrienne maree brown

What is the design of public and private spaces?  What is the “pattern language” of these codified systems which represent our diverse cultures?

Public remains the politized language that represents all of us in a democracy, taxpayers’ dollars generated for the public good that elects our public servants and yet…On closer inspection it feels like code for a kind of people struggling for access to a permissible life that has a value publicly and privately.  Public becomes code for the masses as others, poor, poorly educated, poorly fed, poorly housed, lacking in health care, lacking in important work, lacking access, black, brown, yellow, queer, disabled, immigrant, on the streets and corners and benches of built space – you know them as those people in public schools, transportation, libraries, needy for public welfare and public defenders. We are a jumble amassed in a Jenga-like structure where the invisible hand pulls a piece that can crash our worlds. Which creates the feeling of private[5] as so very aspirational, as in private property, private corporations, private equity funds, private sector, private reserve, private island, schools, universities, rooms, parties, exclusive access to that good life that is steeped in the leg room of first class. And if that is the case then why would we invite the public into our private realms?

And this is why art and architecture are so very important and very dangerous. “We are not simply receivers of aesthetics … we are makers of aesthetics. Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.” Chinua Achebe


The Unfinished House: a personal memory of my childhood home.

My Gran Daddy, Willie Hicks from Selma, Alabama, and his nephew John built a cinder block house for us on a small, purchased lot on the high desert dusty sage-brushed lands of the Umatilla, Palouse, and Cayuse of Eastern Washington. Cinder blocks at that time in the early 60’s were humble, cheap materials accessible to the working class in pursuit of the American hopeful dreams of a place to belong via ownership. We moved into the house before it was finished. My Gran Mama, Rosetta Rankin from Forest, Mississippi, wept, “Lawd have mercy on us. I was raised to never move into an unfinished house. It’s a bad sign. This house will never get finished.” The house was livable, just unfinished. Our unfinished house welcomed all to our table as Mama believed that she “cooked like Jesus;” there would always be enough for us and whomever knocked on the door. In 1970, I moved to California to live with my biological mother in Berkeley. I would visit my unfinished house every year. Daddy Hicks’ intention was to finish the house, but his nephew over time succumbed to alcoholism and became unreliable. Daddy died in 1975. And Mama never wanted “another man up in my house.” Financially there was no money or skilled bodies to complete what was started. When my Mama died in 1996, I walked down the old stairs to the basement with its dirt floor, the open studs that represented two guest bedrooms, a den, a bathroom, the narrow, low sliding glass windows encrusted with cobwebs, dust, and outdoor splatters, an old couch with piles of unfolded clothes, a clothesline strung to dry clothes in winter from the old washing machine balanced on unused cinder blocks and I cried a sorrowful, pitiful woe-is-me sobbing. As I have grown into the moral aesthetics of my homeplace the house feels magical to me now – it had everything living and useful inside and outside including dirt.

We are the public, the private, individual and the collective. None of us are unique in our longing for a homeplace and a public space where we are able, as bell hooks says, “to recover our wholeness” and “be affirmed in our minds and hearts.” Yes, the settler empire’s extractive wars continue to amass mounds of rubble and slash wounds upon the lands where we struggle to live the lives we are born into as diverse creatures of the earth. It represents a lack of architectural imagination within bankruptcy of the embodied hungry ghosts of progress.


Hope is also a design:

Once upon a time the World Honored One was walking with gods and devas and humans, when he paused. He pointed to the ground and said, “This is a suitable site to build a temple.” The god Indra then plucked a blade of grass from nearby and stuck it into the ground at the spot where the Buddha had pointed. Indra declared, “The temple is built!” The World Honored One smiled.

[1] Middle English: from Old French paleis, from Latin Palatium, the name of the Palatine hill in Rome, where the house of the emperor was situated.

[2] The Members of the Architecture Lobby. (2020, February 7). The Architecture Lobby Statement on Trump’s Executive Order Affecting Federal Architecture.

[3] “The People’s Palace,” named after Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph’s vision to provide a spectacular City Hall  for San Franciscans.

[4] late Middle English: from Old French, from Latin publicus, blend of poplicus ‘of the people’ (from populus ‘people’ and pubes ‘adult’).

[5] late Middle English (originally denoting a person not acting in an official capacity): from Latin privatus ‘withdrawn from public life,’ a use of the past participle of privare ‘bereave, deprive,’ from privus ‘single, individual.’

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of In Dance.

Ellen Sebastian Chang is a multi-faceted creative force, renowned for her impactful contributions as a director and writer. Her current projects are “the boiling” in collaboration with writer SunHui Chang and visual artist Joan Osato, slated for premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in 2025, and “Post Pardon: the opera” with librettist Arisa White and composer Jessica Jones at Waterville, Maine’s Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts in 2025.