Anti-Proposition 8 demonstration
Instead of commenting on the protests and celebrations surrounding the rise and fall of Prop 8, I’d like to talk about that building in the background. We see it on all the CNN live feed covering Prop 8. It’s not the California state capitol, it’s the San Francisco City Hall.
I’ve always envied San Francisco for their civic center. We have nothing so large, so grand, or so fine in New York. Our city hall is much older (1810), but not nearly as big or as splendid. The huge courthouses that surround Foley Square are cause for despair, the proper settings for lawyers always trying to manipulate legal processes for advantage. Some of New York’s biggest and ugliest buildings line that square, with all the glory and grandeur of government forms. “Beati Qui Ambulant In Lege Domini,” declares the façade of St. Andrew’s Church over the scurrying crowds of lawyers and clerks, adding to the gloom.
In contrast, the San Francisco City Hall is an exhilarating spectacle at one end of a wide sunlit plaza.
City Hall from the Civic Center
It makes the perfect setting for mass gatherings of commemoration, celebration, or protest. New York does not have any open space comparable.
Anti-war rally in the Civic Center
Saint Patrick's day in the Civic Center
I’ve visited the place twice. The first time, my old friend David Giesen gave me a thorough tour of the place including the Mayor’s office and the meeting room of the Board of Supervisors. But for the metal detectors, the building is wide open to the public (in contrast to New York’s City Hall which remains inaccessible) during business hours.
To everyone’s great surprise, the current City Hall opened in 1915 just four years after the start of construction, and nine years after the great earthquake destroyed its predecessor. The reason for the surprise is that the previous city hall took 27 years to complete.
Old San Francisco City Hall.
Anti-Chinese rally at the old city hall. Maybe there's something to that idea that bad politics and bad design go together.
The earlier city hall was a huge rambling palace built on the cheap by corrupt politicians stealing its construction funds. When the earthquake destroyed it, the graft that built it was there for all to see. What was supposed to be marble and cast iron turned out to be plaster and concrete stuffed with old newspapers and trash (there is similar history behind the old Tweed Courthouse here in New York). San Francisco’s earthquake beleaguered citizens were outraged at the discovery.
Old city hall after the 1906 earthquake.
The San Francisco Civic Center with its city hall is a major masterpiece of what used to be known as the American Renaissance movement in architecture and design.
The movement was closely bound up with both liberal and conservative good government campaigns to clean out the corruption of local politics in the First Gilded Age. The artists and architects of the American Renaissance wanted to likewise clean up and modernize public architecture. To them, the ramshackle messy historicism of Victorian public architecture (which we now value) reflected the messy corrupt politics that built such monuments. The destroyed San Francisco city hall was, for these architects, a particularly glaring example of such unfocused excess. That it was so shabbily built came as no surprise.
The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham designed the general layout of San Francisco’s Civic Center. He got to build in San Francisco what he wanted to build in Chicago after its great fire. Burnham’s plan for the rebuilding of Chicago centered on a big grand civic center with a wide open plaza lined with public buildings and dominated by a large city hall at one end. He intended San Francisco’s Civic Center to be like his own unbuilt Chicago Civic Center, a focus for the whole city. However, in his design for the rebuilding of Chicago, Burnham laid out wide boulevards linking the civic center to the rest of the city in imitation of Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington DC. In San Francisco, Burnham remained bound to the city’s existing grid street plan.
San Francisco Civic Center in a satellite photo
San Francisco Civic Center in an old photo, probably from the 1930s
Arthur Brown Jr., a local San Francisco architect and a French Beaux Arts trained protégé of the great Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, designed the City Hall and most of the original buildings surrounding the civic center plaza. He organized it as two wings around a large central rotunda very much like the US Capitol and many state capitols. However, San Francisco has only one legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, which is not large. Brown made the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s office face each other across the rotunda on the second floor. The Mayor’s office occupied the second floor above the main entrance facing the plaza. A grand staircase leads to the Board of Supervisors in the rotunda, declaring the supremacy of the people’s representatives over the executive. The two wings that are built around legislative halls in other capitol buildings, here are built around courtyards. The wings house courtrooms and government offices (San Francisco is a consolidated city and county).
Grand staircase in the rotunda to the Board of Supervisors' meeting room.
Stucco work in the rotunda.
interior of the dome.
Brown designed the building to be a declaration of San Francisco’s return from the catastrophe of the 1906 earthquake. Phoenix and fire motifs appear throughout the building. “San Francisco, O glorious city of our hearts that has been tried and not found wanting, go thou with like spirit to make the future thine,” is inscribed in the rotunda, composed by a former mayor, Edward Robeson Taylor. The rotunda is a showpiece of carved stucco-work. Brown’s city hall does what its predecessor did not. It expresses clearly the government functions that take place within, the social contract on which those functions are based, and the pride of a city that returned so miraculously from devastation.
I must confess that I am partial to the American Renaissance movement, and I’m happy to see it rescued from the oblivion assigned to it by decades of modernist criticism. San Francisco’s city hall and Civic Center are among that movement’s greatest accomplishments, comparable in my opinion to Copley Square in Boston.
The San Francisco Civic Center is historicist in its design. Burnham had Renaissance and Baroque town planning in mind when he laid out the plaza. Brown looked to buildings of the High Renaissance for inspiration, to Bramante and Michelangelo. The dome of the city hall is a modified version of Michelangelo’s dome of Saint Peter’s. This was all to the point. The American republic, so the architects explicitly declare, is the heir to the legacy of historical republicanism beginning with Greece and Rome and continuing with the revivals of Renaissance Italy. The grandeur of Baroque city planning intended to proclaim the majesty of princes, in San Francisco proclaims the majesty of the sovereign people. Like the best American Renaissance design, it incorporates modern technology such as all electric lighting and space for automobiles.
In my opinion, modern form is at its weakest in the public forum. Modernism began as commercial and domestic architecture. It did not become architecture for public buildings until after World War II. Modern and Post Modern design still has yet to find a form language to articulate public ideas as clearly and as eloquently as the old historicist styles did. It still alienates individuals more than it engages their imaginations, and draws them together into a common sense of purpose.