Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Before Transamerica: Coit's command of California

Photo by John Curley, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Architectural Record's recent news of plans to restore San Francisco's Coit Tower made me ponder the value a unique landmark tower, monument or skyscraper has traditionally brought to a city, in terms of iconic familiarity, historical reference, cultural identity, wayfinding value, or picture-postcard appeal.

Big Ben chimes out, "This is London." The Eiffel Tower announces, "This is Paris." The Empire State Building proclaims, "This is New York." Not to mention Philadelphia's Independence Hall... Chicago's Willis (formerly Sears) Tower... Seattle's Space Needle... St. Louis' Gateway Arch... Toronto's CN Tower... Boston's John Hancock Tower... D.C.'s Washington Monument... San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid...

Photo by Chen Si-Yuan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Wait — not so fast. Before Transamerica's pointed poignancy pierced through San Francisco's low-scale landscape and crowned itself the city's signature spire and fortress of familiarity in 1972, the Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill was San Fran's icon of identity, symbol of civic pride, and especially...

Labor of love

Photo by Chad1616, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Coit Tower was built in 1933 on the site of the west coast's first telegraph line (1849) as a city beautification initiative from the will of philanthropist Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a volunteer firefighter in San Francisco since helping the shorthanded Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 extinguish a fire on Telegraph Hill when she was 15.

Photo by Kkmd, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The 180-foot reinforced concrete fluted column was designed by local architects Arthur Brown, Jr., and Henry Howard with eagle carvings and torus moldings at its base, an observation deck with skylights at its crown, and a stair and elevator through its shaft.

The observation deck, overlooking the city like a firewatch tower, aptly symbolizes Lillie Coit's eagle eye on the neighborhood, ever watchful for fires, especially when lit up at night before a fiery sunset (above).

The tower's architecture exemplifies the neoclassical-Art Deco combo of many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration building projects, expressing the folk patriotism of the hard labor that built them as the WPA put more Americans back to work.

Photo by Leonard G., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wesman83, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Like the Acropolis of Athens (above), the Coit Tower (right) gave San Francisco an Athenian quality in its evocation of an ancient Greek column ruin shorn of its capital, its command of the city below as a monument to high civic attainment, and its invitation to the populace to make the strenuous, laborious pilgrimage to that upper echelon of civilized society. Which we are about to do, so brace yourselves...

Upward bound

San Francisco's hilly topography is especially arduous on Filbert Street, the main route to the Coit Tower and — unfortunately for its pilgrims — one of the city's steepest streets, at a maximum gradient of 31.5%, or 17.5º, with no cable-car to ease the elevation.

Once it reaches Telegraph Hill, Filbert Street gets sooooo steep it transforms into a...

Stairway to heaven

Photo by Christopher Beland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Here the streets of San Francisco become the steps of San Francisco. They carry us far and away from carhorn civilization, usher us through a heavenly Eden of a community garden cared for by local residents, and traverse Napier Lane and other picturesque footpaths and alleyways
as we pound the planks
on our painstaking pilgrimage to our
Mecca on the mount...

Look up... way up

Photo by Little Mountain 5, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Now that we've made it to the top of Telegraph Hill, the sheer height of Coit's column makes its coming climb look domineeringly daunting indeed. But it's more of a friendly giant than it appears to be. It spares us the stairs by offering an elevator to its observation deck, decked out in the Art Deco spirit of its times:

Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons

But before we blast off, let's mull over the murals in the monolith's base rotunda...

Murals of the masses

"City Life" by Victor Arnautoff. Note The New Masses and The Daily Worker at the newsstand,
the cop with his back to the robber the foreground, and the car accident in the background.
Painted mainly by California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) students and faculty through FDR's Public Works of Art Project, these murals capture
the character of the commonfolk, their struggles to survive the slump, and their vivid visions of bolting the breadlines and walking to work. Here a postman, there a news dealer, here a cop, there a robber...

"Industries of California" by Ralph Stackpole, depicting the vitality of urban and rural
industry to rejuvenating the California economy in the throes of the Great Depression.
This effort was co-spearheaded by Ralph Stackpole, San Francisco's leading artist of the era, master of social realism, champion of the commoner. His "Industries of California" mural exalts the value of the farmhand, the sharecropper, the planter, the picker and the packer in preserving the Golden State's fruit, vegetable and grain industries and their importance in providing those workers with jobs.

"Library" by Bernard Zakheim shows Coit muralists John Langley Howard
snatching Karl Marx's Das Kapital and Ralph Stackpole reading a paper.
Also supervising the murals project was Bernard Zakheim, whose "Library" mural conveys the process of creating the mural exhibition itself, emphasizing the labor forces and sentiments behind the effort.

This mural depicts Stackpole himself reading a newspaper headline announcing the 1934 destruction of Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads mural in Rockefeller Center, New York, for its depiction of then Soviet leader Lenin.

Coit muralist John Langley Howard responds accordingly in "Library" by grabbing a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital off a shelf while crumpling a newspaper in his other hand, as a power-to-the-people gesture of the prevalence of workers' movements over the political putdowns of such kingpins as Nelson Rockefeller, the lead opponent of Man at the Crossroads in his namesake's center.

Monument to the masses

Photo by Kyle Harmon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
No kingpins up here. Void of the heraldic hubris of war-hero statues atop colossal columns (e.g., Lord Hill's Column in Shrewsbury, England, and Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, below), Coit Tower is open- topped, open to the public ascending to survey the streets, spires, summits and seas of San Francisco, as king of all they survey for a day.

Lord Hill's Column, 1814-1816, Edward Haycock.
Photo by Keith Havercroft, Wikimedia Commons.

Nelson's Column, 1840-1843, William Railton.
Photo by David Castor, Wikimedia Common

Photo by Goodshoped35110s, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Lords Hill and Nelson, on Coit Tower the people are the statue, in the populist spirit of the murals. 

Which makes the tower a true monument to democracy, a symbol of a collective effort to elevate the everyman to a higher level of dignity through hard labor, high hopes.

Unlike the beacon of bureaucracy below...

Transamerica's transgression

Transamerica Pyramid, 1972, William Pereira. Photo by Daniel Schwen, Wikipedia.
San Francisco's new kingpin, the pinheaded Transamerica Pyramid, decapitated the commoner's crown of Coit Tower with the corporate "Power of the Pyramid," as Transamerica's slogan puts it. At 850 feet, it was the tallest tower west of the Mississippi when topped off — but don't expect an elevator ride to its tippy-top, for it's no People's Pyramid.

Built just so to withstand earthquakes, it was reviled during its development, and was made the butt of jokes on a TV comedy special on architecture I watched in 1976 — especially in a Saturday Night Live-style "commercial" for a board game where the object was to build a scale model of Transamerica: "Hey, kids! How would you like to erect the tallest building in the city? You can, when you play 'BUILD 'EM HIGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'"

(READERS: If you remember the title of that program, kindly let me know in the comments box below. Thank you.)

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The tower that stumped Boston

Students, professors, alums, lend me your eyes:

Did you ever notice the Gothic tower relief crowning your head as you entered any of the pointed portals of Boston University's Charles River Campus on your way to a class, lecture or meeting? Did you pause to ponder this symbol's scholastic significance? Did you dismiss it as frilly frippery? Did its sublime symbolism stump you?


Look up.


Think back about 700 years ago and 3,000 miles away to a small port town in Lincolnshire, England, a town first known as...

St. Botolph's Town

Gradually contracted to Bottleston, Botston, and ultimately Boston, this Norman-era settlement on the River Witham became the namesake of Boston, Massachusetts, when some of its natives settled there with John Winthrop and his Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630. Olde Boston's signature landmark was, and is, the tower of St. Botolph's Church, visible for miles across Lincolnshire's flatlands and wetlands. Named for 7th-century abbot Botwulf of Thorney, or Botolph — meaning "boat-helper" because he prayed for fishermen to have a good catch (he is also England's patron saint of travelers and farming) — St. Botolph's Church was built from 1309 to 1590 in the era's perpendicular Gothic style. Crowning its 242-foot bell tower is an octagonal lantern of pinnacles, finials and flying buttresses.

The planned construction of a spire atop the lantern was preempted by political upheavals leading to the Hundred Years' War and the formation of the Church of England — hence St. Botolph's Church's sobriquet, the "Boston Stump."

Stumping the States

Woolworth Building (1913, Cass Gilbert)
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Harkness Tower (J. Rogers)
Photo by Sage Ross, Wikipedia
Cass Gilbert's "Cathedral of Commerce," the 1913 Woolworth Building in New York City, sparked a revival of fascination with the heavenly reach of the Gothic as an expression of the vertical soar of the skyscraper. This made the Boston Stump the perfect prototype for office skyscrapers, college towers and cathedrals across the country, as architectural expressions of upward mobility, academic achievement and spiritual attainment.

Tribune Tower (1925, R. Hood)
Photo by Ben Miller, Wikipedia
Cathedral of Learning (1926, C. Klauder)
Photo by Pjah73, courtesy of Flickr.com
James Gamble Rogers' Harkness Tower at Yale University was one among many "Boston stumps" erected across the United States for commercial, collegiate or cathedral purposes, demonstrating the Stump's malleability when Gothic morphed into Art Deco with the changing tastes and times.
American Radiator Building (1928, R. Hood)
Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, Wikipedia
Cathedral of Hope (1935, R.A. Cram)
Courtesy of National Register of Historic Places
Others included Raymond Hood's Chicago Tribune Tower, Charles Klauder's Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, Hood's American Radiator Building (now the American Standard Building) in New York, and Ralph Adams Cram's Cathedral of Hope, or
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, in Pittsburgh.

Here, Cram gave the Stump its due: the spire. His strict adherence to the Boston Gothic in the face of modernism's forward-march made him a prime candidate for giving Boston
its due with...

The Boston-to-Boston connection

Photo courtesy of WBUR's Photostream on Flickr.com
Cram & Ferguson, in strategic alliance with Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott and Boston University President Daniel L. Marsh, envisioned B.U.'s new Charles River campus as an expansive but intimate city-within-a-city of diverse Gothic buildings, unifying and expanding the College of Liberal Arts, the School of Law and the School of Theology around two quadrangles along the riverbank.

The signature landmark would be the Alexander Graham Bell Memorial Tower — the New Boston Stump — crowning Marsh Chapel, reflected on the river, boldly bespeaking Boston's transatlantic origins, and tolling the bell to the telephone's inventor, who had been a B.U. professor of vocal physiology at the time.

Photo by BardofL, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
St. Botolph's compositional contrast between the vertical stump-tower's upward progression of lancets, flying buttresses and crests and the horizontal gable-chapel's repetitive regiment of buttresses, finials and stained-glass windows would be re-realized as the centerpiece of Boston University's hallowed halls of high academia, lofty learning and sublime scholarship.

Thus it would compete with Harvard and MIT for Charles River reverence, counterpointing their Georgian cupolas and classical domes with a Gothic tower.

Alas, like its English ancestor, political upheavals and war would stump the tower — but this time the whole tower, not the spire.

The new campus plans were announced in the Boston University News on October 24, 1928, but were stalled by the stock market crash precisely one year later, followed by the September 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland that initiated U.S. involvement in World War II.

Those fiscal fallouts ultimately scaled down the campus design to the stripped, simplified Collegiate Gothic superblocks, centrally connected by Marsh Chapel and its Gothic-arcaded cloister wings, as we know them today. Completed seven years after Ralph Adams Cram's death in 1942, they show the absence of his guiding hand.

The missing link

Marsh Chapel, the cloisters and the gateway towers seem to cry out for the Supreme Stump to fill the void and complete the link between the buildings and its link to the past. The towers would work best as a preliminary pylon announcing the main attraction...

Photo by Martin Clark, geograph.org.uk
...that is especially found wanting on the water, which reflects and extends St. Botolph's sublime soar but mirrors and magnifies the void left by the incompletion of B.U.'s Charles River Campus.

Sert's assertion

Photo courtesy of WBUR's Photostream on Flickr.com
Knocking the campus's semi-symmetry lopsided with typical modernist irreverence for things past is Josep Lluis Sert's B.U. School of Law Tower (1960-65), a token tribute to the Tower-Not-To-Be. This crass, chockablock clustering of disparate parts hulks over the Charles as a concrete (so to speak) symbol of the law-office bureaucracy for which its students are bound.

Which lacks the lithe, lofty leap-and-bound and gracefully unified composition of the Boston Stump. (And the Law Tower is awkward functionally as well as visually: an elevator-linked stackup of classrooms, offices and mock courtrooms doth not a cohesive, collegial community make.)

So the Alexander Graham Bell Memorial Tower reliefs still tower over the heads of Boston University students, professors and alums as they enter into its various schools of thought. These icons serve as grim but gracious reminders of the Boston Stump that stumped its stardom all over the States but forever eluded
its proper namesake, its rightful heir, its sister city.

And yet...

Boston's 'Stump'

Photo by Chen Si-Yuan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Boston, Mass. is not completely stumpless, boasting a spire-challenged church of
its own: King's Chapel,
the granite Anglican-Unitarian landmark
built 1748-1752 from a Georgian design by Peter Harrison. Fundraising for King's Chapel's completion stumped the congregation, hence its foursquare bell tower bereft of a crown.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An imperial imprint

Of the 532 buildings Frank Lloyd Wright realized over his 70-odd years as an architect — "including houses, offices, churches, schools, libraries, bridges, museums, and many other building types," quoth the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation — what could be called his masterpiece? What is the supreme summit and synthesis of his endless efforts to burst the box of blah and rip open the business-as-usual building envelope to create a truly truthful architecture that extols the nature of its materials and the culture, psyche and spirit of the people that live in and around it?

My answer would be the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Though this rightful King of the Franks was ultimately dethroned and decapitated, it has left an imprint in the memory as the highest attainment — despite its low scale, which ultimately sealed its fate — of Wright's goals to revive ancient architectural traditions with modern building techniques and materials, to revere the nature that produced those materials and inspired the local populace, and to revivify the lives of those people with all of the above.

Imperial inspiration

Photos containing Ninomaro reception rooms at Nijo Castle, Kyoto.
Photo by Keith Poumakis, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
As an avid collector of Japanese prints, Wright was inspired by the linear simplicity, the spatial fluidity and the natural reverence of Japan's architecture, from the intimate human scale of its houses to the imperial grandeur of its temples and palaces. 

The houses hugged the earth with their low-lying horizontality and one-level living, while the palaces mimicked the mountains with their soaring clay-tiled roofs and paid homage to a Buddha, ancestor or god with their profundity of adornment.

Frank Lloyd Wright, c.1926.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Simplicity of structure contrasted with opulence of ornament, but the latter did not obscure structural expression as traditional Western norms did. For Wright, Japanese architecture was the perfect union of opposing yin-yang forces he was seeking in an expressive yet livable style of architecture that was of, by and for its people, rather than imposing itself on its people the Western way.

Thus he eagerly accepted his 1916 commission from the Imperial Household of Japan to design a new hotel in downtown Tokyo — a city whose newest construction greatly displeased Wright. He said: 

"The time of awakening must come sooner or later. And then the country will be face to face with the costly necessity of getting rid of all these architectural monstrosities and evolving a style more in consonance with Japanese traditions and really characteristic of the people."

Imperial initiation

Surely Tokyo's first Imperial Hotel was among Wright's peeves for its foppish, haughty hybrid of French Second Empire and Italian Renaissance styles. Built in 1890 from a design by a Japanese student of the Rokumeikan's architect, Englishman Josiah Condor, it was as un-Japanese as a hotel could be, despite being locally known as Teikoku Hoteru (Imperial Hotel). On April 16, 1922, it was destroyed by fire, giving Wright a wider opening to combat that imported white elephant with the native touch of the ancients.

Imperial integration

“But in its scale, and in its play with surprise elements, the Imperial Hotel is completely Japanese…
There were little terraces and little courts, infinitely narrow passages suddenly opening into large
two- or three-storey spaces… And there were many different levels, both inside the rooms and out-
side the buildings, including connecting bridges between the two long, parallel wings of guest-rooms.”
— Peter Blake, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Space
The new Imperial Hotel was also to represent Japan's emergence from an isolated island of primitive folkways into the modern nation it had become since U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry had opened it up to American trade in 1854. To these ends, Wright conceived the hotel as an east-west hybrid that adapted...

Maya pyramid at Tikal, Guatemala – photo by Peter Andersen
...the stepped, setback ziggurat form of the ancient
Mexican and Central American Mayan shrines...
Photo by Lykantrop, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
...the level, earth-bound horizontality of Wright's own American
Prairie Style homes such as the Robie House in Chicago (1910)...
Byodo in Phoenix Hall, Uji (1059), Kyoto, Japan, courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia
...and the projecting clay-tiled roofs, tripartite headhouse-wing
compositions and water-landscaped forecourts of Japanese palaces.

Imperial impression

With the creative playfulness of the Froebel block-building child he once had been, Wright arranged these elements in the form of a vast, extensive oriental temple of interconnected buildings of Roman brick, poured concrete and concrete block, green-carpeted with a lily-padded koi pond. 

In this way he elevated all three of the above styles to a primitive yet prim imperial dignity high enough to feel reverent yet low enough to feel at home.

Imperial imperviousness

Remembering the 1894 earthquake's damage of Tokyo's first Imperial Hotel, Wright placed the new one on a floating concrete foundation he devised to withstand seismic activity...

...and on the very day of the hotel's dedication on Sept. 1, 1923, the great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo and Yokohama, destroying more than 570,000 homes and claiming more than 100,000 lives, but leaving the Imperial Hotel (pictured, right) intact with minimal damage. The floating foundation assured its salvation.

Imperial impenetrability

Wright retrofit the roof perimeter with copper rain gutters that drained stormwater through elaborately patterned grills, shaping it into 50 to 70-foot-high patterns as it fell into the courtyard below — a cascade of fountains drawing on the powers of nature to achieve their ceremonial dignity at no water-bill expense.

Imperial introduction

Arriving guests were cooled by the pond and received under the porte-cochère, which reminded some of Chichen Itza's Mayan ruins on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. A soft Japanese lava stone called Oya enabled Wright to proliferate the hotel with Mayan-style carving, including geometric abstractions of scarabs, turtles and peacocks.
Guests — who included Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and General Douglas MacArthur — were awestruck by the three-story lobby's palatial extravaganza of Mayan and Japanese embellishment, executed in green volcanic rock, pierced terra cotta grillwork and golden Roman brick.

The lobby's beige and turquoise Native American carpets, woven in Peking, led guests through a labyrinth of quirky staircases and passages (such as "Peacock Alley," right) into a double-height dining room, theater, lounge and ballroom, all full of geometric whimsy and ancient spirit...

Imperial interiors

Dining Room
Guest Lounge
Peacock Room

Imperial intercultural

To some, the lavish, poignant, intricate carvings, moldings and panelings recalled the richly patterned stonework, woodwork and earthwork of Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Aztec, Native American, Indian, or Asian cultural traditions, depending on where in the world they were coming from and what they had seen before on their world travels.

Imperial in style

To others, this dynamic décor was "Wright" in step with the Art Deco jazz age of the '20s and '30s — particularly the quirky angles, explosive excess and free-form fancy of the Peacock Room, which blended with the blue-note brassiness of the jazz that rocked the room while crowds danced the Black Bottom, the Boogie-Woogie, the Charleston, the Foxtrot, the Jitterbug, the Lindy Hop, the Swing, the Tango...

Imperial intimacy

For respite from the jazz-ma-tazz, the thick-walled guestroom wings lined up along the reflecting pool, veiling Tokyo's congestion and muffling its clamor in the peace of a garden oasis of lily pads, koi carp and bonsai trees, aided by soft light filtered through the thin windows and perforated overhangs.

Photo by Stephane d'Alu, courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia
The courtyard took cues from Japanese gardens such as the Ryoan-ji Zen temple's kare-sansui in Kyoto, where stones were revered for their natural shape and placed to induce a meditative state in the onlooker. Garden walls were high enough to screen off civilization yet low enough to expose trees, for a calming continuum between nature within and nature without.

Imperial invasion

The U.S. Army used and greatly altered the Imperial Hotel as a barracks during the American Occupation of Japan after World War II, during which General Douglas MacArthur paid a visit to the troops at the hotel. It is said that Wright was requested to redesign his masterpiece for this purpose, but he refused.

Imperial inevitability

But against his will, rising operating costs and increasing tourism necessitated expansion of the Imperial Hotel. The yellowish modern annexes, opened December 1, 1952, and August 1, 1958, epitomized those "architectural monstrosities" Wright abhorred — which foreshadowed the fate of his creation.

Imperial immolation

By 1968, floods, earthquakes, pollution and wartime bombing had critically damaged the hotel's structural foundations, which a team of seismic specialist declared unsafe to endure future tremors. Besides, the hotel's low scale and vast greenspace didn't stand a chance against Tokyo's rising land values.

Despite a plea from Wright's widow Ogilvanna to save and restore the building, the hotel management decided it was more cost-effective to tear it down. And so they did, along with its annexes.

Imperial imperiousness

Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia
Yet another architectural monstrosity replaced it in 1970: a monolithic gray 17-story hotel comprising a pair of vertical cross-slabs with more than double the old hotel's number of rooms — which certainly reflected Tokyo's rising land values, both architecturally and numerically. The new digs sparsely preserved the old hotel's memory by primping up common areas with Wrightian designs and motifs.

Imperial immortality

Photo by Manuel Anastácio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But the memory is more faithfully preserved near Nagoya, Japan, at Meiji Mura, an open-air museum of architecture from Emperor Meiji Tenno's reign, where the original entrance pavilion, lobby and reflecting pool let you experience a portion of the imperial power of Frank Lloyd Wright's Asian-American masterpiece.

Imperial invitation

Photo by Dani Rubio Perez, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
 For a seven-minute filmed tour of the Imperial Hotel's reconstructed grounds at Meiji Mura, visit:

For a 10-minute presentation by architect Edgar Tafel of slides he had taken of the Imperial Hotel's demolition in 1968, visit:

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!