Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


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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.

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Cerritos Beach, Baja

Happy New Year. I took a bit of a blogging break there. I’ve been busy with projects and a vacation down to Baja. I should probably comment on this crazy drought we’re having or this evenings blessed rain, but my head is still in vacation mode.

These watercolors are all from Cerritos Beach on the Pacific coast north of Cabo San Lucas. I was staying in a palapa on the beach, but there’s an upscale hotel, Hacienda Cerritos, on the bluff overlooking it. I’m not usually interested in resort architecture, but this one is done really well, with beautiful detailing, including hand-carved doors, carved stonework, colorful tiles, custom wrought-ironwork, a diaper pattern in the brick dome, and lots of other grand touches. I would describe it as tastefully ostentatious, if that makes sense. There’s a video tour if you click thru to their website, though I recommend first hitting mute because there’s an audio track that cheapens it. While I was painting in the courtyard I heard a few different groups of people go through, and everyone gave out some form of ‘wow’ as they first saw the space.

Richmond Bay Trail Sketches

Last year I mentioned that I walk our dog, Carla, at the Richmond Bay Trail. For about two years now, I’ve gone there almost every week, often three or four times in a week. Lately, I’ve sometimes taken along a watercolor block to do a quick sketch while Carla waits with a surprising amount of patience. I do the ink on site and add the watercolor at home. The main idea is just to find a composition and finish it quickly before Carla gets restless, but the real effect has been to deepen my appreciation of the San Francisco Bay. Such a great natural wonder to live near.

Wedding Ceremony Watercolor

A couple of weeks ago I went to a commitment ceremony for a couple of friends of ours at a redwood grove up in Guerneville. Since then, thanks to the Supreme Court decision, the commitment has become a marriage, which is as it should be. It was a very nice ceremony, but I’m not really a ceremony guy, so I sat towards the back and started this watercolor. Not my best effort, but I felt like posting it anyways. In recent years I’ve been to two weddings in churches and four weddings in redwood groves, a pretty clear expression of how Northern Californians feel about redwood trees.

Berkeley Rose Garden Watercolors

I’ve stopped at the Berkeley Rose Garden several times this year, first in February while everything was dormant, then a couple of times as the roses were starting to wake up, and once recently with everything in full bloom. The Rose Garden is a WPA project from 1937, a terraced amphitheatre with a 220 foot long pergola topped by climbing roses. A gardener friend recently said she’d never checked it out because she’s not a rose person, but the roses are only part of the appeal. I’m not a rose person either, but the pergola and the stonework and even the sadly culverted creek running beneath the terraces all have a classic 1930’s Berkeley style. One of the iconic Berkeley places.

The city says that the pergola was suggested by Bernard Maybeck, though someone else executed the actual design. It’s one of my favorites, and probably the one I would see in my head if I ever looked up the word pergola in my private mental dictionary.

Landscape Architecture Bicycle Tour

April is landscape architecture awareness month and landscape architects everywhere are raising awareness. Or perhaps more accurately, one landscape architect that I know, Anita, is raising awareness. She’s leading a bicycle tour of several landscape architecture projects in San Francisco on Sunday. Last year she was sick and I ended up leading the tour. I was a bit leery, but it turned out to be pretty fun and I recommend it to anyone who wants to bicycle around San Francisco for a few hours. We went to several projects, with the highlight at Levi’s Plaza, Lawrence Halprin’s masterpiece. My favorite ‘built’ landscape in the Bay Area, it blows me away every time I see it, and it was interesting to see a group of people experience it for the first time. Everyone got smiles on their faces. After the tour, I went back a few times to take photos and do some watercolors. I love that big fountain.

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