John King: when it comes to buildings Berkeleyans are even more conservative than San Franciscans, he says. Photo: Laura Morton

John King, staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, is a skilled observer of the urban terrain. His new book, “Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings” (Heyday; $14.95), is drawn from his “Cityscapes” column in the Sunday paper and celebrates serendipitous juxtapositions of 50 of his favorite buildings. Berkeleyside caught up with King, who lives in Berkeley, and asked him about his perspectives — including on Berkeley buildings that speak to him.

Do you bump into a lot of lamp-posts?

Lamp-posts, no. But I take my eyes off the road to look at buildings far too often when I’m behind the wheel of a car — so far without dire consequences, thank goodness.

How do you go about collecting your “cityscapes”? Is it on the hoof, camera in hand? Is it mostly happenstance rather than searching them out?

Three ways. Some buildings are favorites I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about. Some are recommended to me by readers, or I’ve pulled from guidebooks (if I’m heading to the Presidio for a review, for instance, I’ll schedule an extra hour or so to look at some neighborhoods and check out candidates along the way). And some are purely by chance: when you’re in the mood for architecture, serendipity kicks in. Buildings I’ve passed a dozen times will suddenly catch my eye.

Are all cities an invigorating “clash of styles” as you put it in the book, or does San Francisco have particular elements that make its “cityscapes” particularly compelling?

San Francisco has three factors in its favor. Geography’s the most invigorating – the hills and bay are constant reminders of nature that add a spark the exact same buildings wouldn’t have in the Central Valley or on some Midwestern plain. Then there’s the odd way that geography combines with the grid – especially when the grid in fact is a collage of grids that in turn collide with each other. Finally, more prosaic, San Francisco’s a remarkably dense city by American standards, so the buildings jostle each other.

Kayak House, Mission Creek Park. Photo: John King

You speak in the book of the architectural conservatism of many San Franciscans, despite their ostensible progressive values. Are Berkeleyans that way? If so, why do you think that is?

Berkeley’s probably even more conservative. A large segment of the population – and still a politically active one – chose to live here decades ago because the individuals see this as a place uniquely attuned to their cultural and social and political values. The only place to live. And if you’ve found your own personal Eden, then why should anyone be allowed to change it in ways of which you don’t approve?

You divide your book into sections  — Icons, Styles and Masters, Landscape, Change. If you had to choose one Berkeley building for each of those categories, what would it be and why?

Icons? That’s easy: the Campanile. No other single structure is so widely identified with Berkeley, not even – sorry, foodies – the woodsy presence of Chez Panisse. My runner-up for icon would probably be the Berkeley Community Theater, for its connections with the WPA and downtown educational presence

King approves of the Chase bank building on Solano. Photo: John King

Styles and Masters: I feel obligated to go with the Julia Morgan Theater, because it’s a threefer, a great building by a revered local master that also has the materiality and aura that seems so, well, Berkeley. A small bit of contrarian in me argues for the modern bank at the corner of Solano and Fresno avenues as a pure display of how that era defined and responded to context (it’s all in the volumes, rather than the skin treatment). But even if you like it – and I do – it sure ain’t quintessential Berkeley.

Landscape: An abundance of examples to choose from – Berkeley’s like San Francisco, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – so I’ll indulge myself.  Greenwood Common. The magic can’t be conveyed in a photograph, you need to visit. What an exquisitely modest argument for how American cities could have developed.

Change: This is a tough one – provocative change isn’t Berkeley’s forte – but the garage-turned-Freight & Salvage is a fresh example that’s also architecturally rewarding. Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects did a great job.

Might “Cityscapes Berkeley” be next?

I did two months of Cityscapes last summer on Oakland, and it was a kick. Maybe that should be my summer vacation this year… I’d save on BART tickets!

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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  1. I love the book …. pick up a copy at one of Berkeley’s great bookstores – Stout, Builders Booksource or Mrs. Dalloway’s, to name a few.

    Would be great to see him writing on BerkeleySide … till then, perhaps a weekly “favorite buildings of Berkeley ” post?


  2. I absolutely agree that The Cal Academy building is wonderful! Definitely what I would call “progressive” architecture, since the architects took chances and tried new things.

  3. Yeah, but glass and concrete can be beautiful! The Cal Academy building is mostly glass and concrete, but with thoughtful attention to warmer details, most especially the living roof.

  4. The book sounds interesting, and all of Mr. King’s Berkeley picks are wonderful choices.

    Any chance he could be cajoled into writing occasional articles for Berkeleyside about notable Berkeley buildings?

  5. The Trader Joe’s building would look a lot nicer if it wasn’t painted that hideous goldenrod color. A fresh coat of a more neutral paint would improve it immensely.

  6. Suggesting that those who reject modernist architecture are “architecturally conservative” implies that modernist architecture is somehow “architecturally progressive.” But modernist architecture has been around for decades, and the glass boxes that people keep proposing in Berkeley aren’t exactly pushing the envelope. Most of the time it seems like a modernist style is chosen because it is the cheapest and easiest to build, and not because it’s the best choice for the project, and the architects in charge of the projects seem to always design very conservative modernist buildings that don’t try anything new or interesting.

    I actually like modernist architecture when it’s done well, but most of the proposed modernist buildings in Berkeley are boooooooring.

  7. To be fair to Charles, the only building styles I’ve ever seen him complain about are modernist glass-and-concrete boxes. And the construction projects that generate the most controversy in Berkeley seem to always be glass-and-concrete boxes.

  8. That’s neat and interesting. What do you think of this view:

    At any given time in history, architectural practice is the effect of a feedback loop between available materials, known techniques, and the “generative” theories and practices with the greatest political power. So, we’ve got stuff to build with, known ways of working with that stuff, theories about how to solve development problems using that stuff and those techniques, and political forces that favor some theories over others. Right?

    A politically progressive view of architecture, it seems to me, is one that seeks to emphasize and expand the use of sustainable materials, seeks to emphasize and expand the techniques that tend towards labor justice and sustainability, and seeks to influence which theories of architecture are dominant with the aim of a kind of harmony: creating built environments that reinforce that pursuit of progressive politics (get people wanting to protect, preserve, and expand the project). Fair enough? So you’ve got, in any era, that feedback of materials, techniques, theory, and political power. A progressive politics of architecture wants to shift that in various ways.

    “New urbanist” architecture politics looks at various externalities of importance to progressive politics (such as sustainability, economic justice, quality of life, etc.), examines various historic patterns of apparent successes, and tries to introduce them to the contemporary discourse of architectural theory as it jockeys for power.

    So far, I think that that’s all stuff that is present in your analysis. I might have said something poorly but hopefully nothing controversial with you.

    This is where I don’t follow you and/or don’t necessarily agree:

    Modernist styles (slight on ornamentation, “glass boxes”, etc.) don’t seem to me to be, as you assert, a “purely esthetic doctrine”. Rather, to understand them, go back to that original feedback loop:

    Modernist styles today are a reflection of available materials, available techniques, and political externalities such as economic considerations.

    Therefore, contemporary modernist styles are not purely aesthetic, they are also not incompatible with progressive politics.

    There is nothing politically progressive about glass boxes, about removing ornamentation from buildings, or about other typical features of the modernist style.

    Can the modern practice of such designs conserve resources, lead to more maintainable and flexible structures, be constructed in a just manner, and support a society characterized by such things as economic justice, high levels of achievement, and high quality of life? It seems to me you have to answer questions like those more directly before you can assert that objecting to modernist designs is not mere “conservativism” (both kinds, architectural and political).

  9. I think Mr. King was referring to the political conservatism of those who oppose nearly all change in the built environment– they’d prefer no one tinkered with their “personal Eden,” as he puts it. To your point – you’re right. There is nothing progressive about recreating the mid-century modernist aesthetic. But King’s reference was to a mid-century building from the mid-century period. At the time it was built, it was arguably progressive. It was part of a movement that believed ornamentation was gimmicky, like lipstick on a pig. Stripping away the ornament in search of the authentic and elusive thing itself was a trend in modern painting, literature, music and architecture. It was revolutionary at the time.

    But these days, some of the most celebrated contemporary buildings are highly ornamental — locally, think of all the bells and whistles on Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences; or the photo-activated apertures on Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Mond Arabe in Paris. So I’d respectfully disagree that there is a dogmatic adherence to the stripped down aesthetic of the 1950’s. I do think a lot of people, myself included, find beauty in simplicity. For instance, I’d like the Trader Joe’s building in Berkeley a lot more if it didn’t have so much ornamentation glued to it like an art car. But hey – we don’t have to and won’t always agree on style. What I really appreciate about that building is its scale and volume and the way it interacts with the street, not to mention the fact I can walk there for a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a stick of butter. The political conservatism that Mr. King identified did its best to keep that building from happening. There is nothing progressive about that.

  10. Sounds like a straw man argument by Charles_Siegel. John King is not advocating Modernist architecture; when speaking of Berkeley conservatism he is merely speaking of an entrenched opposition to change. Modernism, as an -ism, is a historical movement at this point in time. Unfortunately, modern is used to describe both contemporary buildings (contemporary has its own unfortunate connotations), and also Modern buildings, and much gnashing of teeth results. Cities must change over time, as society changes. Hopefully the change is good, and respects the past without being slavish, but change should also allow for new expression, which many in Berkeley seem opposed to.

  11. Let me go further: There has been a change in what it means to be progressive during the last 50 years, and conventional architecture critics like King are oblivious to that change.

    “Modernist architecture became popular because the ideal of progress was so influential during the mid-twentieth century. These gleaming glass, steel, and concrete buildings represented the faith in technology and economic growth that was a common belief of the time. This architectural style proclaimed that the modern era was so advanced that it could ignore models from the past and let technocrats redesign society on scientific grounds. It helped spread the faith that technology and planning could heal the sick, replace the slums with hygienic housing projects, and create affluence for all.”

    In the mid-twentieth century, progressives wanted to make the benefits of technology and modernization available to everyone. Today, progressives are much more skeptical of technology, and much of progressive politics involves limiting destructive technologies. Progressives want to control global warming, stop nuclear power, replace factory farming with organic (or low-input) farming, and so on.

    A Berkeley example is Chez Panisse, promoting locally grown organic food. The craftsman style architecture of this restaurant is a good expression of the sort of artisanal food that it provides. It would not make sense for Chez Panisse to be in a modernist building.

    In the 1970s, it seemed that this change in the direction of progressivism was affecting architects; much of the post-modernism of that time was a rejection of high-tech modernism.

    Since the 1980s, this change in direction has continued to affect urban design. The New Urbanists reject destructive technologies such as urban freeways and use traditional urban design and often traditional architecture.

    But since the 1980s, academic and conventional architecture has gone back to the old modernist style of the 1950s. As a result, architectural modernism has become a purely esthetic doctrine, and it no longer has the social-reformist spirit that modernism had early in the 20th century, when it reflected the larger society’s belief in technology.

    If King says that opposition to modernist architecture is conservative, he might as well also say that opposition to nuclear power, genetically engineered food, and urban freeways is conservative.

    For more in this vein, see

  12. “You speak in the book of the architectural conservatism of many San Franciscans, despite their ostensible progressive values.”

    John King makes the common error of confusing political progressivism with esthetic modernism.

    There is nothing politically progressive about glass boxes, about removing ornamentation from buildings, or about other typical features of the modernist style.

    Apart from political issues, modernism is now the established academic style, and modernists are esthetic conservatives, continuing to push the architectural dogmas of the 1950s.