From artdaily.com comes news of an open call for entries for a sculpture of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who with that city's mayor, George Moscone, was assassinated on November 27, 1978. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco history, and his murder as much as his election has made him into an icon of the San Francisco gay community. That said, the call for entries states that the sculpture is to be a realistic bronze in the manner of the bronzes of past San Francisco mayors and other city personages that have long been displayed in San Francisco City Hall.
You can read more about it here.
Go here (.pdf) for a virtual tour of San Francisco City Hall, including images of the bronze busts on display.
Anyway, the call for entries put me in mind of what is arguably the most important architecture book of 2006 thus far, Arthur Brown Jr.: Progressive Classicist, by Jeffrey A. Tilman. (The book was published by Norton in conjunction with ICA&CA.) Brown was the architect of San Francisco City Hall. The City Hall is part of Brown's Civic Center complex, the most impressive thing of its kind in the country.
Indeed, was there a better 20th-century architect in America? Even when he went "moderne," there was a spirit to his buildings that made his works in that vein the equal of Paul Cret's. I think Brown showed an inventiveness throughout his career that can put one in mind of Goodhue or Lutyens. And for your flat-out grand Beaux-Arts--wow. Overall, his oeuvre recapitulates the course of American design for the first fifty years of the century with an exquisite refinement and taste. Brown attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts right at the turn of the century. Back in the Bay Area, Brown (who had attended the University of California at Berkeley) formed a partnership with John Bakewell Jr. Bakewell and Brown had both studied at Berkeley under Bernard Maybeck.
Brown attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the same time as Paul Cret. Bertram Goodhue arrived on the scene around the same time, though he never attended the Ecole. I will always think of these architects together, as the ones who led America into the 20th century.
Jane Jacobs, whom we all admire, hated the San Francisco Civic Center. Remember, in Death and Life she excoriated the City Beautiful right along with the Garden City and the Ville Radieuse. "Radiant Garden City Beautiful" was her catchy catch-all term. Jim Kunstler, who like a lot of us loves the City Beautiful and Jane Jacobs, tried to get her to speak to this in the great interview he did with her--but she kind of skirted the issue. In 1961 she wrote:
Forty-five years ago, San Francisco began building a civic center, which has given trouble ever since. This particular center, placed near the downtown and intended to pull the downtown toward it, has of course repelled vitality and gathered around itself instead the blight that typically surrounds these dead and artificial places. The center includes, among the other arbitrary objects in its parks, the opera house, the city hall, the public library and various municipal offices.
Now, considering the opera house and the library as chessmen, how could they have best helped the city? Each would have been used, separately, in close conjunction with high-intensity downtown offices and shops. This, and the secondary diversity they would help anchor, would also have been a more congenial environment for either of these two buildings themselves. The opera, as it is, stands related to nothing, enjoying the irrelevant convenience of its nearest neighboring facility, the Civil Service Employment waiting room at the back of City Hall. And the library, as it is, is the leaning wall of Skid Row.
San Franciscans, how is it now? How much of what Jacobs wrote still resonated 35 years later?
You can see what she means. David Lowe, of whom it may be said that no man more fully embraces the Beaux-Arts, said some similar things about the impact on downtown Chicago of Daniel Burnham's 1909 city plan--said that it was why South Michigan Avenue, by day the most gorgeous phalanx of Beaux-Arts skyscrapers in America, is, by night, wretchedly barren of life.
It's true that American designers who loved the French forms combined them with an Anglo-American morality that disdained the commercial intrusion. Today's topic for discussion: The tragedy of American cities is that their best architecture has too often been divorced from their best urbanism.
However that may be, Tilman's book on Brown is a must-have. It is beautifully illustrated with photos (including a generous section of color photos), drawings, and plans; is extremely well written; has a complete checklist of Brown's buildings; and has the requisite thorough notes, bibliography, and index. Such a monograph on Brown was long overdue and now that it's here and is so good it should do a lot to secure Brown's place in the pantheon of American architects.