San Francisco

Architecture at “Arts of San Francisco”

San Francisco Museum of Art

The recent Arts of San Francisco show at the Museum of Art presented a variety of public and private buildings selected “to indicate the character of architectural activity in Northern California.” In general, the projects were mundane and pedestrian, with little to offer other than their newness.

The exhibition revealed a fundamental schism in the basic approach to the design of the two major aspects of architecture, the public building and the private. The tendency as evidenced in the public building is to assimilate forms, materials, and techniques originating elsewhere and then adapt them to fit into the Bay area. The tendency in the residential work, while that which was shown, was not indicative of the general private building, is to return to traditional Bay area forms and adapt them to fit contemporary Bay region living.

The International Building, by Anshen and Allen, was the most prominently displayed, utilizing a great number of photographs and slides to show its relation to San Francisco. However, in both form and materials the building remains basically foreign to its immediate city environs. Employing strong horizontal “banding” in reflection of its cantilever construction, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s towers, the building nevertheless omits to express either the vertical structural elements or to employ any variation in floor forms. Thus the strong horizontals are terminated weakly at the vertical corner ducts, and the elevation dominated to its disadvantage by the bands unrelieved and lacking in either variation or contrast. The arbitrary introduction of additional forms at the roof and machinery penthouse further confuses the unresolved elevations and seriously compromises the integrity necessary for the building to be considered as a significant work of art.

The Cyclotron Building by Gerald McCue and Associates illustrates the problem of creating significant architectural form to enclose a very unique function. The solution of using forms and materials satisfactory in themselves, but undifferentiated from commonplace American industrial building is unconvincing. Also undistinguished in its relation to its hillside site within a campus environment, the building leaves unresolved the larger questions as to the integration of industrial forms and materials to the Bay region.

The Pope and Henderson Houses by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons and the Governor’s Mansion by Campbell, Wong and Associates represent an architectural return to the historical past. The traditional plans, forms and spaces of these houses postulate that family living patterns remain unchanged from the static, landed society of the 19th century. This attitude also denies the validity of the work of the great American architects such as Wright and Richardson as well as the California work by Nuetra, Maybeck, Schindler and others. Of course, this purposeful ignorance of the real heritage of the Bay region is absurd and few other architects in the area reflect this approach. In the final analysis, the lack of creativity involved in these projects place them in the category or mere applied historicism and they in no sense can be considered as creative architecture.

The mere seeking for more universal forms or traditional regional responses is not the problem illustrated here, nor is it necessarily objectionable. The difficulty is when this is substituted at the final form level for creative search or development by the individual architect. As exhibited here, the character of the contemporary architecture in the Bay area is insignificant, non creative and imitative, not deserving of a major museum notice.

(Review submitted by a San Francisco architect who wishes his name withheld.)