by Paul Goldberger

Maybeck’s work will survive as long as architecture survives. It may rise and fall in the amount of attention it gets — every period has its passions and its blind spots — but it will not be forgotten, unless we give up on architecture altogether.

That is not, of course, impossible. As technology brings us deeper and deeper into virtual experience, and as our culture takes increasing delight in replicating anything and everything it can get its hands on, the notion of great architecture as unique, and as emerging out of concrete realities of form and space, sometimes seems in danger of slipping away. Maybeck’s work is a clarion call to the power of reality in architecture, to the glory of experiencing a building as a tangible thing, unlike any other thing. No one who has not visited the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley can fully understand it; you must walk through Maybeck’s space to feel the extraordinary rhythm of wood, tracery in cast concrete, the flow of the light, the combination of majesty and intimacy.

Maybeck’s architecture was less an attempt to assert the value of historicism over modernism, or even to forge a synthesis between the two (though he did indeed succeed in doing that), than it was an assertion of the experiential side of architecture. Maybeck was interested in the way buildings made people feel; he cared about the auras his buildings possessed, about the emotions they inspired, about the thoughts they brought forth. He felt free to use different kinds of form — to indulge in a range of styles, in other words — because his extraordinarily curious and pure mind could see through stylistic garb to the essences he sought. He was free of dogma and equally free of guile. For all his indulgences in historical allusion, he was unburdened by the stylistic associations that weighed down so many of his colleagues.

Maybeck, like so few architects, possessed no ambivalence about the relationship of modernism to historical style. He knew that there is no such thing as the completely new; he also knew that no work of art worth anything can be made entirely from things that have come before. He felt no conflict, and his work was proof that total originality need not demand total rejection of what is familiar and comfortable. In the end, he takes his place not only among the greatest of California architects, but also among that select group of architects throughout history who, like Hawksmoor, Soane and Lutyens, pushed and pulled traditional languages in ways that others could not imagine, and in so doing made poetry.

Paul Goldberger writes for the New Yorker. He is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and has authored numerous books on architecture and urban design. He is a graduate of Yale University.