Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Allan Temko, San Francisco's Pulitzer winning critic

Allan Temko, longtime Chronicle architecture critic, was a writer known for his vivid phrases.
image source: SFGate

The piece-by-piece dismantling of Candlestick Park happening at this moment brings to mind the title essay in No Way To Build A Ballpark by the late architectural critic Allan Temko.  This essay, originally published in Harpers Magazine in August 1961, recaps the controversies involved in the construction of the stadium.  While a grand jury found financial irregularities, Temko found design irregularities.  In his erudite way he described what every ballplayer found out:
The air currents, sweeping off the hills and the harbor, move not only with exceptional velocity, but in an unpredictable variety of directions. ... Sometimes one flag in the outfield will be rippling toward the bay, or hanging limp, while another is stiffly directed toward right field.
He deftly described how the design of the structure itself help to circulate the air in these myriad directions.  (By the way, Temko really loved the Oakland Coliseum).

At this particular moment in San Francisco, it's rewarding to revisit Allan Temko's writings.  He wrote on and off for the San Francisco Chronicle over a 40 year period and won the paper's only Pulitzer Prize for criticism (in 1990).

He was active during a period much like ours today with radical changes to the City's skyline.  Temko wrote with fervor and with muscle and took impassioned stands for his vision of the City.

In the introduction to No Way To Build A Ballpark reminds his readers that he started writing at a transformational time in American Cities when environmentalism and slow-growth movements were taking hold.
In 1962, Americans were just learning that they would have to fight for a decent environment.  Suddenly the country was being ruined before our eyes, smashed, raped, poisoned, stunk up, and, not least, disfigured by inhumane and even hideous buildings.
He used this pen to skewer architecture that he found wanting -- he described the now iconic Transamerica Pyramid as "the biggest architectural dunce cap in the world."  He excoriated Pier 39, an oft-visited tourist destination, as "corn, "kitsch," "schlock" and even "honky-tonk."  Perhaps his most entertaining put-down was of the Vaillancourt Fountain at the Embarcadero as an object "deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines."

Following a few words of faint praise, he could suddenly skewer his target.  Writing about the then yet-to-be constructed Marriott Hotel:
There's not much wrong with this concoction ... except that the building is far too big, misshapen, and crudely detailed - quite simply a mess - after two years of design, redesign and official review.
He later acknowledged, to his chagrin, that the finished building -- the "jukebox hotel" and "mutant of Las Vegas" -- has "delighted the populace and appalled the architectural community."

Temko was a strong critic of the Embarcadero Freeway and an early advocate for knocking it down. 
The current political battle over the freeway is a classic case of human environmental rights vs. the tyranny of machines. ... It amounts to a choice between a sunny, open waterfront and the dark, forbidding, virtually moribund place The Embarcadero has become since the freeway's technocratic shadow enshrouded it a quarter of a century ago. 
The present revitalization of the waterfront is a testament to this vision.

We wrote thoughtfully about the San Francisco Public Library Main Library building where this blog is being composed.  His verdict was that a "great thing comes in so-so package."  He described the Library as "a great book with a bad cover, ... best studied from the inside out.

He praised the building's atrium writing that:
All is warmth and sunlight, which changes constantly in the course of the day, and the building at last comes wonderfully into its own.
At the same time he was critical of the "needlessly complicated floor plans."

Those wishing to read Allan Temko's architectural criticism should of course check out No Way To Build A Ballpark.  The San Francisco Chronicle / Newsbank database has full-text of more than 100 of Temko's articles from 1985 onward.  The Art, Music and Recreation Center has a Newspaper Clipping File that contains articles by and about Temko.

No Way To Build A Ballpark: And Other Irreverent Essays On Architecture (Chronicle Books, 1993).

"Great Thing Comes In So-So Package," San Francisco Chronicle April 18, 1996, pp. 2; 12 [in the Newspaper Clipping File].

"'Jukebox' hotel never had a chance," San Francisco Chronicle June 17, 1985 [in San Francisco Chronicle (Newsbank)].

"Why Embarcadero Freeway Must Go," San Francisco Chronicle November 4, 1985 [in San Francisco Chronicle (Newsbank)].

No comments: