by Robert Craig
The physical substantiality of monumental masonry construction made Romanesque architecture not only memorable for Maybeck but physically long-lasting in itself. It is not without significance and relevance to our current speculation that the great churches of the turn of the first millennium were, in Maybeck’s day, extant. John Ruskin referenced these characteristics of memorable architecture when he told nineteenth-century architects, “When we build, let us build forever.”
Maybeck admired the modern material of concrete because he admired its “stoney” qualities and its ability to evoke the weighty substantiality of medieval masonry, but he also saw concrete as an earthquake-proof and fireproof material. In spite of some contemporary opinion that the eccentric and visionary artist-architect was impractical, he personified in many ways Auguste Perret’s dictum that “an architect is a poet who thinks in construction.” Maybeck’s legacy, beyond the preservation of memory, stands a good chance of remaining in concrete physical fact. In this regard, his Berkeley church (with its massive Romanesque concrete piers), his Palace of Fine Arts (now rebuilt in concrete), and his Principia College (structured in steel and concrete) portend a life cycle that recalls medieval stone monuments, and they are likely to outlive Maybeck’s redwood and shingle houses of the San Francisco hillside communities.
Maybeck’s Principia College, recently recognized as a National Historic Landmark, was the architect’s last major commission and the largest coordinated ensemble of his work as master planner and architect. The college was considered by Maybeck to be a highly significant part of his life work, and there is evidence he intended his campus buildings to last for many generations. Maybeck’s buildings for Principia College are rooted deep in the earth and framed and constructed so substantially, that the client questioned whether their architect was over-structuring the steel and concrete buildings.
Early in the construction phase at Elsah, Frederic Morgan cited to Maybeck “one instance of what seems to many of us here to be an elaborate over-planning throughout, on the strength of foundations and walls.” The school had contacted a geologist who reported that “there was nothing unusual about the clay of the bluff. It is well compacted, loose, or wind-deposited silt.”
But the client went on to tell Maybeck, “never in their experience have they ever seen footings such as the [structural engineer] has laid out for [Buck House]. It is six to seven times larger than [the contractor] would consider absolutely conservative and…seems to be a terrible price to pay for the small remote possibility of a cracked wall.” The structural engineer, according to the client, appeared to be working under the assumption that “he must design all footings and beams as though he were building over quicksand.”
Much of this urge for permanence would appear to be a consequence of Maybeck’s California experiences earlier in the century when he lost his office to the famous San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and later lost his home in Berkeley to the devastating brush fire of 1923. Maybeck increasingly turned to concrete as a fireproof building material, notably at the Larkin House and the Wallen Maybeck House #2 in California. His remarkable concrete work climaxes in his construction during the early 1930s of Principia College, where residence halls display concrete stairwells, board-form concrete wall surfaces, steel and concrete ceiling trusses, concrete and gunite roof slopes, "bubblestone" fireplace ornament, concrete chimney tops, and concrete fireplace hoods. The American Institute of Steel Construction found the details of the college buildings of interest inasmuch as Principia’s “type of steel construction…” represented the latest evolution of what is known as the “Tokyo and earthquake construction…and engineers feel that it is capable of resisting even the more violent shocks experienced in Japan.”
Maybeck’s St. Louis clients repeatedly reminded the architect, “We don’t have earthquakes.” Maybeck, intent on ensuring the buildings’ longevity, retorted, “But you do have tornadoes!” Maybeck specified extensive concrete for his first Principia residence halls, from foundation to ridge, including roof slopes and steel-framed dormers, and, when construction got underway, the client wrote, “If you could see the fortress-like construction of [Howard House], I am sure you would agree with me that it would take one of our most efficiently organized tornadoes to make any impression upon it whatever. If any building ever looked like one large concentrated bank vault, this certainly does. It surely spells ‘permanent’ with capital letters, double extra plus….”
Maybeck insisted he would not modify any specifications, and remarked that he had to “hammer and yammer” to assure that his assistants inspected regularly when he was not on the site, for he wanted them to carry out his instructions to the letter. He complained, “no wonder St. Louis concrete cracks…anybody’s carelessness means my black eye.” Maybeck’s concrete was to be just as the architect specified it. Admittedly, he intended it to personify a weighty substance and to embody a concrete idea-the legacy of Maybeck and Principia-and he intended it to last to the year 3000 and beyond.
If the question raised by the Maybeck Foundation is followed by another question, “What Maybeck buildings are likely to be extant in the year 3000?” I propose that Principia College may be at the top of the list.
Robert Craig, Ph.D., teaches architectural history at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His dissertation at Cornell University was on the work of Bernard Maybeck at Principia College. He is author of John Portman: An Island on an Island.