Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bernard Maybeck and his First Church of Christ Scientist [Part I]

Bernard Maybeck [1862-1957] was one of the pioneer architects of the San Francisco Bay Area. A long-time resident of Berkeley [from 1892], he designed a series of projects which brought him world wide fame, and a Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1951. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he eventually designed residential and commercial buildings in a wide variety of styles, often mixing symbolic and structural details and techniques in the same project. This eclecticism became one of his signatures. Among those of his buildings which still stand, 50-100 years later, is the First Church of Christ Scientist, at 2619 Dwight Way in Berkeley, dating from 1910. In the decades since, as the University of California campus expansion has continued to grow up around it, it remains one of the area's choicest vintage buildings, and is worth a pilgrimage all by itself. As residents of the East Bay, we get to appreciate it on a regular basis, since it's on a cross street one block east of Telegraph Avenue and its bookstores. The draping wisteria which festoons its western facade is one of the great joys of the season, as its pale violet blooms appear in early spring.  

Not being a churchgoer, my only opportunity to see the interior is on scheduled tours. I first saw the inside in the early 1970's. In America, middle-class hubris has usually insisted that our churches be as tall and imposing and "vertical" as we can afford. Maybeck--true to his vision--designed a church which is totally unlike this, with low gently canted, cascading roof-lines, multi-paned "industrial"-type glazing, softening arbor-trellis-work, and "medieval" window framing. Concrete is used very creatively in the columns and external wall treatments, with subtle decorative inlays. Inside, redwood and integral interior lamp fixtures, etc.     
Maybeck, though trained in the classical orders and the Beaux Arts approach to design of buildings, came to early maturity during the Arts & Crafts (or "Craftsman") period, which lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910, and influenced artists, writers, architects, book designers, furniture makers, and those in the decorative arts. In America, this movement was perhaps most influential in the San Francisco Bay Area; Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Coxhead, Polk, Galen Howard. A central aesthetic figure here was Charles Keeler, poet and naturalist, and an important figure in the Hillside Club, an organization in North Berkeley, organized to foster and encourage sensitive development. In 1904, Keeler published The Simple Home, a sort of manifesto of design principles, based on accommodation of style to landscape and site. Keeler, in fact, became Maybeck's first residential client in 1895, after they met one day on the ferry between Berkeley and San Francisco (in the days before the bridges had been built). Keeler and the Hillside Club became the nexus for an emerging Bay Area design style, of which Maybeck was the primary figure.

In practical terms, the Bay Area style was not one thing, but several. In Maybeck's hands, the classical and formal characteristics of European design were combined with aspects of the Arts & Crafts, the Mission Style, the woodsy "bungalow" style, etc.--truly an eclectic mix of differing influences, all joined in a seamless amalgam of tastefully ordered proportions and subtle touches.

Sadly, many of Maybeck's finest residential designs were lost in the big Berkeley fire of 1923. Which is why those buildings of his which still survive cry out for preservation. As time marches on, architectural styles change, materials go in and out of availability, and the needs of society change. One question which keeps getting asked over and over is whether the monuments of previous generations deserve to occupy space, which might be devoted to more "practical" use. Styles may fall out of favor, or be forgotten through neglect or ignorance. 

Those who forged the Bay Area Style in the early decades of the 20th Century, believed that architecture, along with its allied arts, is the purest expression of a culture: How we live, and the environment we create, are the best evidence of our success in making a fully mature and enriching existence. In almost every respect, the residential architectural tradition, as measured by the work of Maybeck, Morgan, Howard and others of that period, is superior to the styles which have superseded it. 
Maybeck's First Church of Christ Scientist is now almost completely surrounded by ugly high-rise structures--undergraduate dormitories, apartment blocks, and the homeless encampments along the eastern edge of the opposite block on Bowditch Street. This neighborhood was once occupied by residential structures. As the University has continued to expand over the years, engulfing former residential precincts, the character of the city is being progressively degraded. The UC Berkeley campus was originally conceived to accommodate perhaps as many as 12,500 students. Its present undergraduate and graduate population is about 36,000! What this means in real terms is that the UC Berkeley campus is overwhelming the city of which it was originally intended to be a part. Now, rather than fitting in comfortably with its surrounding urban matrix, it's destroying the once-pleasant and -manageable commercial and residential feeling of the city. 
More is not always better. Berkeley--and the Bay Area--is much better off with Maybeck's church intact and preserved. But it now serves as a reminder of a better time, before academic sprawl and uncontrolled growth, and slipshod expedient construction, became the order of the day. Maybeck's church is a reminder of how crass, impatient and apathetic society has become about itself. Poor taste in our environment is rampant. Spiritual values--which once drove our city planning and design philosophy--are no longer of any concern. Houses, churches, classrooms, public facilities--we no longer have the decency and care to discriminate between good and bad, because the quality of our lives has declined. The environment we now create is a perfect expression of our culture: cheap, ugly, regimented, selfish, careless, and dull.    

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