Cityscapes 2, with John King

Monday, January 25, 2016

The award-winning urban design critic of the Chronicle, John King, took us on an architectural mini-tour of San Francisco with a focus on six buildings that show the combination of change and continuity in the cityscape.

The tour covered the Ferry Building, the iconic portal to the city; 1355 Market, formerly the Western Furniture Exchange, now the Twitter building, which has led the revitalization (some would say gentrification) of the mid-Market area; 560 Mission, which King considers the best of the glass towers; 1180 4th Street, a new apartment building that exemplifies the newly created Mission Bay neighborhood; the future Transbay Terminal, possibly “the most lavishly landscaped bus station in the world”; and PG&E’s Embarcadero substation at Fremont and Folsom, a remnant of a homely neighborhood now all but extinguished by glass towers.


In a wide-ranging Q and A, King commented about, among other things, Park Merced (the proposed renovation will happen); our own Sunset-branch library (an example of a Carnegie-funded library from an era that believed in educational uplift); the unpredictability of change (who in 1980 would have predicted all the bicycles we have now?); the best way to look at the city (walk it, and let go of your preconceptions); the prospects for future big projects (slim, no more land); the attempt to stop the Warriors from moving to Mission Bay (a nuisance law suit that will fail); and the uneasy relationship between builders and planners.  Builders want to build product; planners want to rein in big buildings just enough to make them acceptable; and architects go crazy because they are caught in the middle.

After his talk, King signed copies of his book, Cityscapes 2: Reading the Architecture of San Francisco. The book offers observations on 50 structures, from the iconic to the offbeat, and on how they reflect the city’s styles, values, politics, and history.


Here is a peek at one of its chapters, “Clues,” which includes a section on a store that sells baseball caps but retains the signage from the time when it was a cigar store.  Score one for historical preservation, sorta.

A "cigar store" that sells baseball caps. Who knew?
A “cigar store” that sells baseball caps, not cigars. Who knew?


John King has been the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2001. He covers architecture, planning, and related issues, from the design of major towers to the cultural impact of concert halls and parklets. He has two weekly columns. “Cityscape” on Sundays focuses on individual buildings. The “Place” column on Wednesdays explores the local landscape. King has been honored for his work by the California Preservation Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the California chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2002 and 2003.

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