by Gray Brechin

Critic Winthrop Sargent once called Maybeck the sage and Frank Lloyd Wright the prophet of our century, and for that very reason, I doubt that anyone will be around within a millennium to appreciate Maybeck's oeuvre.

While I greatly admire Wright’s aesthetic, The Master said and did many foolish things that often were prophetic of the mess in which we now find ourselves. Throughout his equally long but quieter career, Maybeck exemplified and advocated the search for wisdom, as well as for an accommodation with nature and for a designed sense of community, which found its highest expression in the ideals of Berkeley’s Hillside Club. Rather than rejecting the past, Maybeck consistently called upon its forms to give satisfying shape to the present, and he did so with the rigorous scholarship provided by his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Only by understanding the rules of the game could he successfully break them.

Those who hail the liberating potential of the Information Age often do so with a firm ignorance and even contempt for the past. They too easily confuse a growing tsunami of information with wisdom — that is, the right and discriminating use of raw data.

In Maybeck’s case, the 1923 Berkeley hills fire led the architect at the age of 61 to attempt to develop a new style of fireproof construction appropriate to a landscape as demonstrably flammable as California’s. Few builders, architects, or clients have yet caught up with what Maybeck learned when he witnessed what wind and fire could do to massed wooden houses in a man-made forest.

The tide of our times is pushing emphatically in directions contrary to wisdom. Heavily subsidized and unregulated capitalism with its contrived fads and diversionary entertainment replaces the values of community, of an instructive past, and of thoughtful silence. A sports star's trial or a president's trysts serve for months to divert attention from the somewhat more pressing issues of poverty, climatic change, mass extinctions, and a black market in nuclear weapons.

When Maybeck designed his First Church of Christ, Scientist, he recalled the Romanesque churches built at a time when humanity’s means were not up to accomplishing its end. In his Palace of Fine Arts, he reached back farther to evoke a civilization much like our own that had fallen into irredeemable ruin. He did so at the dawn of a century whose command of energy has grown exponentially. That is why I believe that the Palace, rather than the Church, is the more accurate signpost of where we will be a thousand years hence.

Gray Brechin, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow investigating the history of mining at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.