Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Archive for May, 2014

Jessie Square Watercolors

I recently made a series of postcard-sized watercolors of Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in Jessie Square, an exciting bit of architecture with nothing else like it in San Francisco. The original brick building is gorgeous in its own right, a PG&E substation dating from 1881, designed by Willis Polk, listed on the National Register in 1974, and taken over by the museum in 1984. A few years ago the museum renovated the interior and expanded the building by adding the skewed metal cube shown in my watercolors. The design is wonderfully executed, and though there’s a part of me that dislikes seeing a skewed metal Borg cube perched upon a beautiful historic building, a much larger part loves the way this particular metal cube perches on this particular historic building.

It’s probably the most effective addition I’ve seen for a building like this. As a treatment of a historic structure, it follows a template laid out by IM Pei’s addition to the Louvre, executing the addition with forms and materials that completely contrast with the original structure. There are a few motives for this. One is that there have been so many failed attempts at matching historic construction techniques that there is a reluctance to try again. It’s often too hard or expensive to find the right materials or builders to match the existing work. The second is that modern concerns such as earthquake and fire safety often require new building techniques that will create an underlying mismatch even if the look of the old structure is maintained. It’s dishonest to copy the look of the old building if the underlying structure does not also match. The third is that by offering a contrast to the old structure, people will be able to interpret which are the historic elements and perhaps maintain an appreciation or understanding of them. We don’t build brick buildings like this any more; preserving the building allows people a chance to connect with the era when we did. A fourth reason, perhaps less admirable but undeniably a factor, is that donors, boards, architects, and the public all like to see flashy new designs. You advance quicker in the design world if your works stands out and attracts attention instead of sensitively blending with its context.

These are all valid reasons, but they are sometimes a little shortsighted. These steel and glass additions don’t always respect the past, often they overpower it. I thought the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre was an eyesore when I first saw it years ago, and I stand by that judgement, even if the current consensus is that the pyramid was a success. But even if Libeskind’s addition shares some of its lineage with the Louvre, it’s so much more beautifully executed, with a complex presence that energizes the site. From some vantage points it dominates the scene, but from others it’s barely visible, peaking around the corner with its intriguing angles. And underlying everything, the structure wonderfully matches its use; it’s form really does match with its function as the home for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. There’s something perfect about joining the old and the new on a building that houses a modern museum for an ancient culture.

Click to Enlarge

The Oldest Living Things

A few years back, after a visit to the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, I included a link to a collection of photos by Rachel Sussman, a photographer whose project is photographing living things more than 2,000 years old. She has a book out now, The Oldest Living Things on Earth. Some amazing plants. I like to think that stonework should be designed to last 100 years, but 2,000 year old plants make that seem like short-term thinking. There’s a TEDTalk on her website, also worth watching.

You are currently browsing the DryStoneGarden blog archives for May, 2014.