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)].

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SFUSD Art Teachers Exhibit

The Art, Music and Recreation Center, the Business, Science and Technology Center and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) have collaborated to present a exhibit of the SFUSD Art Teachers. 

The San Francisco Unified School District has a corps of over seventy-five visual art teachers working in the classrooms, supporting teachers and children of all grades.  We are fortunate to be able to exhibit the artwork created by nineteen of these dedicated professionals.

The goal of this exhibit is to encourage our SFUSD Visual Arts teachers to continue their development as artists by creating and exhibiting their artwork.  Students benefit by having their teachers model lifelong learning and their ongoing artistic journey.  Through their artwork teachers refresh and renew their frame of reference and bring new ideas into the classroom, augmenting the curriculum and inspiring all.  We also hope to bring awareness of the resources available at the library that can support the teachers and students on their journey.

The nineteen artists represented are: Jack Alter, Donna Mankus, Staci Kavanagh, Phyllis Ciment, Dawn Weickum, Ingrid Brook-Kothlow, Elizabeth Medrano, Jacqueline Ruben, Lawrence Montgomery, Danielle M. Contreras-Denton, Patricia Copeland, Maria Teresa Rode, Catherine Theilen Burke, Anne Grajeda, Jan Padover, Kirsten Bahrs Janssen, Elahe Shahideh, and Julian Pollak.

The exhibit will be on display from February 7, 2015 - April 30, 2015 in the Steve Silver Music Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library.

The following images were taken of the exhibit:

Further reading on art -- study and teaching:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rod McKuen (1933-2015)

Rod McKuen, a well-known figure in music, literature and popular culture, passed away on January 29, 2015. The opening sentence for his entry in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music sums up the man very well:
One of the revered poets of the late 60s love generation, Rod McKuen is also a highly acclaimed singer, songwriter and soundtrack composer.
Of course, San Francisco was the locus of the "late 60s love generation," so it's not surprising that the poet and songwriter had strong ties to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Phyllis Diller, in a memoir, remembered McKuen as a co-worker and friend who had a prime time radio show on Oakland radio station KROW (later KABL) in the early 1950s.  He would talk on-air with teen listeners about their romantic problems.  Diller later helped McKuen get his regular gig as a folk singer at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach.  He became loosely affiliated with the Beat poetry scene (page 94 of his memoir Finding My Father includes a photograph of McKuen taken by Jack Kerouac). He later sojourned through Los Angeles, New York and Paris where he rubbed shoulders with creative people in all fields.

Though he was often described as a troubadour, he was an outsider to the American folk revival scene.  This is probably because he did not consciously look to American folkways for inspiration.  Furthermore, he did not lend his voice to the major social and political movements of that era, such as opposition to the Vietnam War or Civil Rights.

He was considered a serious enough musician to be included in Ruth Anderson's Contemporary American Composers, which lists 7 orchestral works and notes that he has received 11 ASCAP awards.  As recently as 1992 he was listed in the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians; however, he was dropped from the "Centennial edition" of the dictionary in 2001 - the first one to be published after long time editor Nicolas Slonimsky's death.  Presumably Slonimsky himself wrote this colorful put-down of McKuen:
...he appeared as a folksy balladeer in San Francisco nightclubs; obtained a music theory book and learned to write tunes ... eked out a posh living by crashing parties and gorging himself on choice comestibles.
Slonimsky then dismisses McKuen's output:
He became a roving poet, dispensing a plethora of facile country-style songs with monosyllabic assonances for rhymes and a simple appeal of scenes of non-obscene free love against an artificially flavored pastoral landscape.
Nora Ephron famously skewered McKuen (along with Eric Segal of Love Story fame) in her 1969 essay "Mush" (anthologized in the collection Wallflower at the Orgy).  She inadvertently hits on what might be the main cause for such fervent negative criticism - McKuen's sheer success.  She quotes him saying that he had sold 5 million books ("but who's counting") and had an annual income of three million dollars - undoubtedly grounds for resentment.  Ephron goes on to enumerate the source of this success:
[P]oetry is only the beginning.  There are records of Rod reciting his poetry, records of Rod's music, records of Rod singing Rod's lyrics to Rod's music, records of Rod's friends singing Rod's songs--much of this on records produced by Rod's record company.
This is not to mention his concerts, film soundtracks, and television specials.  By 1969 Rod McKuen was really big.

McKuen's impact can be located in surprising places.  A search for the name Rod McKuen in the Ancestry Library Edition database (a subscription database only viewable at San Francisco Public Library branches) brings up a large number of results.  But few of them concern McKuen directly.  The Ancestry Library Edition has scanned many high school and college yearbooks -- the yearbooks from 1968-1972 are filled with quotations of McKuen's poetry and lyrics.

David Ewen, in Popular American Composers, remarked that McKuen's "songs often touch upon his experiences in love and travel, his loneliness and volatile moods, his reaction to social currents..."  Reviewing a 1970 performance at Philharmonic Hall, New York Times music critic John S. Wilson described McKuen's songs as "sentimental laments of loneliness, some with an implication of hope, some carrying a sense of defeat."  It's easy to see how people coming of age during that time could see something of themselves in this kind of personal expression.

San Francisco's Stanyan Street held some kind of personal hold over McKuen.  It's a song title, the title of a poetry collection (Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows) and is also the imprint for a sizable amount of McKuen's creative output - Stanyan Music, Stanyan Books, Stanyan Records.  The song's lyrics culminate in the phrase "As life falls apart in a little room on Stanyan Street." If read autobiographically the words suggest the loss of some form of meaningful intimacy.  The exact context of "Stanyan Street" remains elusive, but Ken of the official Rod KcKuen website has written the following:
I'm not sure if Rod actually lived on Stanyan Street but as we all know he certainly spent time there and I'm guessing that would have been during the early 60's. Special meaning? Well, it was a very special love affair. One point of interest is that Rod is on record as saying that only two people know the exact location of that little house on Stanyan Street.
 In a 1975 San Francisco Chronicle article, Blake Green wrote that the Stanyan Street was, in fact, a "long-ago demolished Victorian."

After a slight from Chronicle critic John L. Wasserman, McKuen threatened never to perform in San Francisco again.  He did not keep that promise and his name is still hard to dissociate from San Francisco of an earlier era.  We'll let Rod McKuen bid us adieu with his song "So Long, San Francisco."

Songbooks by Rod McKuen at the San Francisco Public Library

Rod McKuen at Carnegie Hall (Warner Bros. Music, 1970).

Twenty-Three Rod McKuen Songs: for voice, piano, uke, guitar, etc. (Stanyan Music Co., 1968).

The World of Rod McKuen (Random House, 1968).


Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians by Nicolas Slonimsky (Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992).

Contemporary American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary, compiled by E. Ruth Anderson (G.K. Hall, 1982).

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music [4th edition], edited by Colin Larkin (MUZE : Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Finding My Father: One Man's Search for Identity by Rod McKuen (Cheval Books, 1976).

"Flight Plan for 16 July 2003," Rod McKuen, A Safe Place to Land (website).

Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy by Phyllis Diller (J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).

"The Many Sorrows -- And Successes -- of Rod McKuen," by Blake Green, San Francisco Chronicle (January 6, 1975), 16. [from the Art, Music and Recreation Center Newspaper Clipping File]

Popular American Composers from Revolutionary Times to the Present; A Biographical and Critical guide. 1st supplement, by David Ewen (H. W. Wilson Co., 1972).

"Rod McKuen," in Current Biography Yearbook 1970 (H.W. Wilson Co., 1970).

"Rod McKuen Offers Poetry and Songs To Sold-out House," by John S. Wilson, New York Times (April 29, 1970), p. 49 [available through the New York Times Historical database]

"Unusual Response by Rod McKuen," by John L. Wasserman, San Francisco Chronicle (December 30, 1974), 34. [from the Art, Music and Recreation Center Newspaper Clipping File]

Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron (Bantam Books, 2007) - originally published in 1970.

"What? A Best-selling Poet?," by Jack Fincher, Life (February 9, 1968), pp. 35-38 [scanned on Google Books]