A CHALLENGING FUTURE: PART I
by Jeffrey Limerick
I wonder if any of the architecture of our time in California will survive until the year 3000. I fear that it may not. The Bay Area is the close companion of active earthquake faults. In the past century Berkeley and San Francisco have also suffered three disastrous fires that have destroyed a number of Maybeck’s houses. One of Maybeck’s houses survived the latest disaster by the decision of the fire fighters to focus their attention on saving it from the flames while abandoning a number of nearby homes to destruction.
Many of the buildings that currently survive have been cheaply and casually altered by their owners, rarely for the better. Maybeck built all of his buildings of humble and comparatively short-lived materials, materials which might survive for several hundred years if well maintained, but which will eventually fail and need replacement. Will redwood forests still be available for harvesting at the next millennium? Will future builders command the same level of craftsmanship that Maybeck insisted upon with then-unfamiliar materials?
Perhaps the biggest threat to the survival of Maybeck’s legacy is the ever-increasing population density of the Bay Area. Growth pressures may soon make the land under many of Maybeck’s surviving buildings too valuable to support single-family homes. This has already led to the destruction of several of Maybeck’s early works around the University of California campus and elsewhere throughout California, where old neighborhoods of single-family houses have been replaced by undistinguished apartment buildings and parking lots.
As much as I love Maybeck’s work and have tried to learn from it, I fear that we cannot count on its survival indefinitely. This underlines the importance of thoroughly documenting it. In a few centuries all that may remain are photographs in books, and, given the changes under way in the publishing industry, books themselves may well be transformed into something we have yet to imagine. Nevertheless, if architects of the future are receptive, Maybeck’s attitudes towards design and towards the making of buildings can offer them long-lived inspiration. His interest in mood and atmosphere, his mastery of psychological effects, his play with technological innovation and new materials made subject to an artistic will: all these are resources for the ages.
But let’s not give up on dreams. Imagine, in the distant future, people rounding a corner in what used to be Berkeley to discover some small fragment of one of Maybeck's buildings (say one of the trellised columns along street front of the First Church of Christ, Scientist) sitting in a small, out-of-the-way garden. Perhaps it will be overgrown with a hearty but distant descendant of the present wisteria. It won't matter to them who the architect was or where the fragment came from. They will still find it beautiful and delightful. That would please Maybeck.
Jeffrey Limerick is an architect practicing in Boulder, Colorado. He became acquainted with Maybeck’s work while a student at the University of California, Berkeley.