by Charles Duncan

To address the legacy of Bernard Maybeck’s work is to contribute to unanimous opinion. To extend that address into the next millennium is to speculate on the survival of a very fragile body of work. One may hope that the power of Maybeck’s legacy will naturally ensure its future. It remains to look at the substance of this legacy, to seek its source, and to understand Maybeck’s intention. It seems clear that one source lying at the heart of Maybeck’s effort is his observation of, immersion in, and ultimately celebration of our humanity. This has many faces. Maybeck’s work contains the spectrum of emotion and experience found in the Greek plays of classical antiquity. Apart from style, skill, materials, site, and the other things that architects hold so dear, it is Maybeck’s ability to render the image of our humanity that makes his work timeless.

If we assume that architecture founded on ideas with specific intention can be read like a book, then Maybeck’s domestic work speaks to his unique and deeply human vision of the family. He often combined the thing called the living room with another called the dining room, sometimes with a foyer or entry. This aggregate space accommodated family interaction. One lived life in the Great Hall. Here one ate, talked, laughed, played, cried, sang, argued, and shared time with friends. Children were welcome in the adult world, and adults in turn could enter a forgotten childhood. As the medieval great hall (for better or worse) was the ultimate commune, Maybeck’s romantic translation of the great hall into the twentieth century promoted the family. It was this shared space that allowed the members to hold each other’s interest in common. Maybeck eliminated the accepted pattern of chambered, segregated domestic spaces (and life) by creating a common vessel for life’s daily activities. Throughout his career he made space based on a sublime vision of the family.

In architectural history survey classes, one studies Maybeck through photographs. Students dutifully read and recite distilled commentaries on his work. Armed in this way, I visited California some years ago for the first time on the eve of my own immigration to the state, with an architect friend who knew San Francisco well. Upon arrival we went immediately to the Palace of Fine Arts. As we strolled by the lake my friend pointed to the highest spot on the peristyle. Inward facing female figures embraced every corner. They were not the formal heroic figures of antiquity, but rather fluid, graceful and enigmatic. Were they in mourning or in repose? I thought of the many hours spent sitting beside my students, teaching the myriad ways of architecturally making a corner. Across time, Maybeck spoke to me and suggested that the harshness of a corner could be eased with the drape of a shoulder, the gentle curve of a spine, and the soft flair of a hip. For the first and only time, I laughed out loud at architecture. But there was no joke. Mastery challenged my limits with simple whimsy and grace. It was delightful. Sensing that the moment was complete, my friend said, “Yes, perhaps he should have been in analysis, but he made architecture instead.”

Analysis indeed. From the sublime to the whimsical, Maybeck reveled in the human drama. This has enormous value. In an ideal world, his vision and what it gives us provide the impetus for the saving of his work. By its very nature his sense of humanity is timeless. Yet most of the work stands close to potentially hostile environments of fire and seismic activity, and in an increasingly crowded world. In Kenneth Cardwell’s 1977 Maybeck inventory, there are 224 recorded built works and projects. Of these, 33 were destroyed and seven heavily altered in Maybeck’s lifetime. During the ensuing 20 years, more have been lost.

It is heartening to know that fragile structures have survived nearly one millennium in adverse circumstances. The notable precedents are the stave churches of Norway, or perhaps the old Nara Prefecture temples of Japan. These are religious buildings. It is clear in these cases that stewardship driven by faith, provides the forces that will ensure longevity. If we fail to see the value of his work, then not only the distant future but the very near future is in question.

Charles Duncan is an historic preservation architect with Carey & Company in San Francisco.