by Margaret D’Evelyn

The variety of professions represented by the respondents to the Maybeck Foundation’s challenge in these scholars’ essays is emblematic of Maybeck’s appeal. His buildings have long spoken to a wide spectrum of tastes and interests. The appeal of the work will continue to broaden as it is clearly articulated in print.

Substantial work has been accomplished in the thirty-eight years since Esther McCoy popularized Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley, by setting out the general principles for looking at the building and its architect in light of the work of other innovative architects elsewhere in California in the early twentieth century. She spoke persuasively of Maybeck’s historic references and of his innovative use of modern materials, and made the visitor feel at home in his exotic, quixotic California masterpiece. Kenneth Cardwell, Sally Woodbridge, and Edward Bosley have successfully labored to enlarge and deepen our knowledge of Maybeck’s San Francisco Bay Area work in their publications. They have contextualized his thought in relation to trends in Bay Area architecture, American architecture, and the European and British matrix — and particularly the Arts and Crafts movement — that nourished his work.

Maybeck’s remark that he preferred Ruskin’s 1853 phrase “beneath my roof” (in his Lectures on Architecture) to the definition of a house as four walls, explains something of the home-like quality of First Church, Berkeley, itself. Seeming to rest upon walls of light, the richly articulated roofs of First Church, offer “hospitable shelter” to the congregation in their church residence, to borrow Woodbridge’s phrase for another of Maybeck’s buildings.

The growing scholarly literature on Maybeck’s life and architecture illustrates how much more there is to learn, as the range and depth of his work — and the interrelationship among the works in his oeuvre — are measured from new viewpoints. These writings represent an architecture conceived on a human-scale, a well-articulated and allusive architecture that wears its learning lightly. Maybeck’s First Church, Berkeley, grew from an abstract series of qualities provided by a patronage group that backed up their request with a trust in the architect’s ability to perform his professional work well — to express these qualities in formal terms appropriate to the site, budget, and function of the building.

Like the best architects of all time, Maybeck was a master of difficult sites and of local materials. His genius extended to the use of well-oriented natural lighting, appropriate color, landscaping viewed as an extension of the ornament of the building. His personal modesty and professional inventiveness, his well-stocked historic imagination, his informed interest in contemporary as well as historic architecture — and in the specific qualities of light and climate of his beloved adopted state of California — these timeless, exemplary attributes seem ever more needed as the twenty-first and thirtieth centuries approach.

Fortunately, with the growing diversification of course offerings in college and university curricula, increased opportunities should appear for including Maybeck’s work among other artists and architects whose works have not fit into easily teachable categories and trends within the history of architecture.

For these scholars’ essays, the Maybeck Foundation posed, indirectly, a most troubling and yet much-needed question about the long-term life expectancy of Maybeck’s best work. Like so many other fine structures of the early twentieth century — and all other buildings from the past for that matter — Maybeck’s buildings are in need of tender care as they mature. Fortunately, the three major books on Maybeck’s work that have appeared in the last twenty-one years have put into eloquent terms many of the ineffable qualities that are felt by every visitor. They have provided logical and profound reasons for these responses, which become clearer as knowledge of Maybeck’s other buildings and their patrons grows. The new volumes, along with the promise of the Maybeck Foundation, have increased the probability that Maybeck’s work will continue to be understood, treasured, and maintained into the distant future.

Margaret D’Evelyn, Ph.D., is an art historian who specializes in architectural history, and publishes articles on architectural theory.