by William Marquand

The year the ground was broken for First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley, Adolph Loos built the Steiner House, his renowned, elegantly planned but featureless residence in Vienna. Loos had felt encumbered by Austria’s tangle of historic fabric. To him honest progress seemed viable only through drastic simplification. Ornament had become criminal. Architecture was redefined as artistic structure.

Thousands of miles away the imperatives in Berkeley were different. Populations who had relocated cross-continent on steam trains and were fortunate to live in a semblance of ‘law and order’ looked back at Atlantic culture with affection, even craving. In vain Phoebe Hearst offered the moon to Beaux Arts master Emil Benard if he would reside in Berkeley and lend international sophistication to the new University. One pastor who needed a church building was so sentimental about life back East that he had his old edifice shipped around Cape Horn to his new Pacific coast parish.

If, as Loos contended, the ability to create cultural worth through architecture was not something that could simply be inherited even right there in the heart of Western civilization in Austria, neither could it be imported easily into its frontier. This is something that Bernard Maybeck knew, or at least learned, and for a number of years practiced with exceptional clarity. The vision to create something of timeless worth under specific circumstances is evident in Maybeck’s finest accomplishment, his fusion of structure and ornament in First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley.

Maybeck loved ornament. Most architects exercise their artistic sensibilities in designing structures, but Maybeck needed art itself. And to him art, like a painting, was sized to us. In architecture ornament, like art, makes meaning, truth, and beauty accessible to each individual regardless of his or her architectural literacy. Maybeck’s mental catalogue of architectural ornament was also his lifeline to what he saw as the great, evolving, ascending artistic accomplishments of man.

We may not think of Maybeck as having metaphysical interests, but it was in fact his obsession with meaning, truth, and beauty that kept him so close to the heart of the building committee of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley. These individuals believed that to the extent that one is honest and receptive, truth and beauty are divine provisions-ours to express. They saw in Maybeck not only an artist but a man of reverence, honesty, and open-mindedness. He in turn felt empathy for their brand of primitive Christianity. They wanted their man, and, like Phoebe Hearst courting Benard, they offered him the moon. Unlike Benard, Maybeck accepted. And the building committee delivered. Maybeck was given great freedom: a considerable budget, no historical models to follow, and an actual charge to be innovative and artistic.

As unpretentious himself as the committee members who had hired him, Maybeck scaled the building to the domestic neighborhood as an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Greek cross form. Unlike other Christian Science churches, the building has a modest, stepped-up exterior with a glass perimeter that visually connects the congregation to the neighborhood.

Inside, a dazzling kaleidoscope of ornament infuses the geometry of the structure. Gold-painted gothic tracery foils ascend the low-pitched truss as it mounts to the center of the space. Maybeck, so deliberate in integrating ornament with structure (rather than hanging it on structure), specified that the diagonals of these unique foils be cast around the steel tie rods that would hold the Pratt trusses together. True to structural need, the foils in front switch orientation in accord with the changing direction of the tie rods behind. The complex beauty of these radiant, human-scaled foils, then, marvelously enhances an efficient truss structure of lightweight materials in replicated bays. Ornament not only makes peace with structure (or vice versa); ornament and structure sing together.

Maybeck’s gilded trusses are not the first example of well-integrated structure and ornament. In Gothic architecture and Art Nouveau buildings, and in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, a similarly remarkable synthesis is achieved. Yet there is a cosmological significance to Maybeck’s achievement. Here, a pre-industrial spirituality survives without being patronized. Maybeck’s mind functioned like a space-time contraption that imported seven hundred-year-old sentiments regarding divinity from the Ile de France into industrial-age California, intact. He then grafted his artistic synthesis — in the form of the gothic tracery foils--like living fabric into the bays of the structural frame and around its steel tendons. This was more than an architectural achievement. The two-foot by five-foot ornaments seem to have life in themselves. They seem to be at work; ornament operates as structure.

Biologist Rupert Shelldrake chronicles how in the early twentieth century prevailing modes of modernity emerged. In their reductionist, biophysical descriptions of life, being is little more than the sum of its lifeless physical parts, hopelessly disintegrating into the mechanistic cosmic matrix. While modernity also promised great freedoms, the nihilistic fears and suspicions engendered by this view of life were unfelt by Maybeck, who seems to never have contemplated a de-animated, de-spiritualized, de-deified or de-humanized world.

It is said that Maybeck never uttered an unkind word about anyone. He lived an ethos of heartfelt humanity (or divinity, as he sometimes suggested). Spiritual vitality seems to have been part and parcel of the very structure of his world, as the ornament in his Church of Christ, Scientist, seems to be part and parcel of the church’s sheltering structure. His work was pragmatic, yet he always assumed an authentic humanity behind face, form and surface. As much as any building, this deeply humane view of life can be seen as his legacy to the centuries.

We must do everything that is needed to insure the longevity of Maybeck’s masterpiece. Where else can we and our descendants go in modern, residential America to have our imaginations so thoroughly challenged?

William Marquand is an architect and was the founding Executive Director of the Maybeck Foundation.