Archive for May, 2011

Some good architecture reads for spring

May 4, 2011

Cover of John King's very portable book, "Cityscapes"

Let’s face it. You can’t really lug a serious book about architecture to the beach, or even on the bus. Typically they are either hefty, hardback tomes, made even heavier by glossy, full-color pages of photography of the work being discussed, or they can venture into dry, academic treatises that often aren’t really fun to read.

This spring, though, fans of architecture can find some good books on our city, including one that you can easily carry on local walking expeditions. San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King has just come out with a very readable and portable book, “Cityscapes” (Heydey, 111 pages, $14.95).

Chronicle readers will recognize the buildings here as having appeared in brief homage in King’s Sunday column, “Cityscape.” The book presents 50 San Francisco buildings in all-too-brief description, and excellent photos, all taken by King for his column, with input from his editors and photographers at the newspaper. King, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, can write.  Readers who missed these columns will be engaged by his elegant prose; some may be flummoxed by a few of his unusual selections.

King knows that his choices may cause preservationists some pause. “This book makes no claim to be a definitive roster of San Francisco’s finest or most beloved works of architecture,” King writes in the introduction. “Instead, look on it as fifty facets of our urban scene: the charismatic stars and the background players; buildings defined by bold visual moves and buildings that offer tactile delight; the sort of structure you notice every time you pass by, and the sort that escapes notice until you catch it at a certain angle, in a certain light.”

That is probably my favorite aspect of this little book, which is also very affordable at $15. It captures buildings in a new light, and shares lovely aspects of some seemingly bland or unloved structures: the “pearly stucco” facade of the garage at 450 South Street, the “brooding grandeur of the rough concrete” of the brutalist Glen Park BART Station, the “clattering, metallic beast” that is the San Francisco Federal Building. Just last week I walked by the Flatiron Building in the morning sun and looked up at the  cornice and its “splashy parade of Gothic embroidery” which I hadn’t noticed in such detail before. One of my favorite city garages, George Applegarth’s circular Downtown Center Garage on Mason Street, is called an “unapologetic ode to automotive convenience” in a town where cars are scorned.

Kelham

Architect Timothy Pflueger’s work appears twice, with both the Telephone Building and Roosevelt Middle School gracing its pages. So does the work of his contemporary George Kelham, and many other local architects, both revered and not so well known. (My quibble is that Kelham’s Shell Building gets treatment as an icon over Pflueger’s earlier Telephone Building). Author Jacquie Proctor will be pleased to see that the subject of her most recent book, architect Harold Stoner, appears twice, including a nice shot of his Lakeside mini-tower, which King calls a “streamlined explanation point.”

Cityscapes gives local architecture fans new looks at both stalwarts and underappreciated structures. King has been on the lecture circuit around the city, and has an upcoming talk and book signing at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, that gem of an institution at 57 Post Street, designed by Albert Pissis. King will be at the Mechanics’ Institute on Thursday, May 19, at 6 pm. On Tuesday, May 31, he will be at SPUR, 654 Mission Street, at 6 pm.

"Port City" by Michael Corbett

Preservationists will love Port City.

The anticipated history of San Francisco’s port is finally available. Published this year by San Francisco Architectural Heritage, Port City, written by Michael R. Corbett, is a comprehensive history of the city’s waterfront and its buildings.  (San Francisco Architectural Heritage, 248 pages, $65 non-members, $52 members).
 
It’s a timely book, coming as it does ahead of the America’s Cup in 2013, and it includes a catalog of the port’s historic resources. As Heritage Executive Director Mike Buhler notes in the preservation group’s spring newsletter, “the race organizers are receiving development rights to a large swath of Port property in exchange for investing up to $80 million to ready some of its historic piers for the regatta.” Debates over the plans are sure to ensue, but at least Port City now provides a frame of historical reference.  Buhler cautions though that, “significant questions remain including how to pass rigorous state environmental review, and the scrutiny of diverse stakeholders, within such a compressed timeframe.”
 
The book by architectural historian Corbett evolved from the 500-page nomination and subsequent listing of the Port of San Francisco to the National Register of Historic Places. A 3-mile section of the most in tact, early 20th century finger-pier waterfront in the U.S.  was named a historic district in 2006. Architectural historians Marjorie Dobkin and William Kostura  worked with Corbett on the nomination. The book received funding from firms like Plant Construction, the city’s preservation fund committee, San Francisco Waterfront Partners and individuals.
 
Telling the long history of the evolution of the Port of San Francisco is no easy feat, spanning from 1848 to 2010 as the book does in 248 pages. The sometimes dry text is offset by vivid vintage and contemporary photography and large, full-color maps. From the early creation of the seawall, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, the infamous labor disputes of the 1930s, to its irreversible decline after World War II and the triumphant reinvention of the Ferry Building, the port’s history is integral to the city’s.
 
This gorgeous coffee-table sized book also makes me want a new, updated edition of my dog-eared paperback of Splendid Survivors, the prior publishing venture in 1979 by Heritage, also written by Corbett. Just as Splendid Survivors is a  must-read for every student of the city’s architectural history, the even better-produced Port City will likely end up as another must-have. 
 
 
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