by Jay Turnbull

We might argue about what survives, but the question is “What is remembered?” As we approach the end of the century and the end of the millennium, we are able to observe how people assess such periods. The distorting lens of the present may enlarge what is most recent and diminish what is ancient, but it is the glass we must look through. I have yet to see a list of prominent people or accomplishments century-or millennium-wide that was not weighted toward the most recent: the near is what people feel they know and understand.

To name a few works of art that are about 1,000 years old, we might think of an anonymous portrait of the founder of China’s Sung Dynasty, or one of the few powerful landscapes that have survived from the Sung period; or of extant fragments of the several abbey churches at Cluny. These works have survived and are remembered. We know of them in part because they are connected to larger ideas-Christian monasticism or Chinese painting. We may have a sense of the personality behind the work, the artist’s quirks and blemishes, but the one-thousand-year wind can wear away particularity. Much of what we think we know about the authors of these works may be false.

The particulars are what make Maybeck beloved. Stories about his humility, his creativity, the gestures of his life, abound. He seems to have had no wish to found a school or style, and, though he probably knew, taught, or collaborated with most of the practitioners of architecture in the Bay Area for a generation or more, he did not influence others so much as inspire them to find their own voices. (He was certainly unafraid to speak in his own.) We are still in an era in which personal witnesses to his life survive. We can seek the testimony of those who knew him-or who knew those who knew him. Much of our present affection for the man resides in this testimony.

Maybeck was himself interested in lasting things. He knew about the 1,000-year measure, and he is quoted in Kenneth Cardwell’s book as saying, “A construction must not only express something of the personality of the composer but must be an exponent of the sentiment of the era and people among whom he has developed, so that to one who should see it a thousand years later it would portray in some measure a phase of life existing at the time of construction.” Exactly so. To be remembered, his church and his other buildings must take their place in a discernible pattern which places them in first-decade Berkeley, the “Athens of the Pacific.” This will be identifiable ten centuries hence. It was a time of optimism, of belief in the classics (note that the Greek theatre was the first commission awarded by university president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the former professor of Greek), and of thrilling to the new.

Maybeck’s works not only take their place in such a phase of life: they go a long way towards defining it.

Jay Turnbull, FAIA, is principal of the architectural firm Page & Turnbull in San Francisco.