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Thursday, March 5, 2009

CAMP Notes

From camptoday.org

More and more articles keep appearing about the new design for the Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) in San Francisco, intended to house Gap founder Donald Fisher’s art collection. Yet most of them are not linking the underlying issues: hubris and the commonweal. Viz: the very wealthy feel entitled to do what they want where they want, but how does the citizenry acknowledge their generosity without being force-fed self-aggrandizement? Can the ego needs of the superrich be satisfied in line with the common good? And specifically, is the Presidio the right place for private or modern development?

Let’s start with hubris. After the public outcry over the first CAMP design by architects Gluckman/Mayner, there was the “CAMP: Reconsidered” exhibition and forum at Mark Horton’s 3A Gallery, in which ten local architecture firms each proposed alternate strategies for the museum design. Out of all that came at least one big idea: move underground. Judging from the new design, as released last week by the hometown team, WRNS Studio, the building is partially subterranean, which is very good news. But the above ground bit hasn’t moved off the historic parade ground (currently a parking lot), which was a surprise, and the design is timid, which isn’t a surprise given the blood sport of development in San Francisco.

The Presidio Historic Association was not pleased, and devoted its March newsletter to the issue (www.presidioassociation.org). The association is lumping the new museum in with other proposed developments at the Presidio and calling foul. Architect George Calys, in his design blog for the San Francisco Examiner, suggested that the Presidio Historic Association might file suit. While the museum would honor Don Fisher, it is not a for-profit entertainment center or hotel. But what is the hubbub really about?

From camptoday.org

From camptoday.org

It was difficult to determine what the design is from the four images released on CAMP’s website (www.camptoday.org). They seem intentionally vague. Even an informed viewer can’t figure out what the materials might be or how they would read. It was rumored that more images of the model were going to be posted on the website last week, but instead they are visible to dignitaries invited to the architect’s office. This week it was announced that there will be a public meeting at the local chapter of the AIA on April 1 (an odd choice). Trying to control the information flow too carefully may not be in the best interest of CAMP.

In Golden Gate Park, Renzo Piano lifted the park up into the air to create the new Academy of Sciences. At CAMP, the big move is to fold the green roof to reveal the contemporary treasures contained within. This is where the architects have been tentative and should consider a bolder stand. Emphasize the big move. Right now, viewed from the air, it will look like the parade ground continues. In the spirit of modernism, let’s call it what it is: pleats in the parade ground.

From camptoday.org

Perhaps the architects should consider collaborating with a conceptual artist like James Turrell, Michael Heizer, or Robert Irwin to celebrate the pleats. The gentle roof is a response to the public outcry over the initial design. The earlier solution may not have been the right one, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want something dramatic. A bold design and the opportunity to have a say might just mollify us design types. Nothing will mollify the folks who hate Fisher and/or the idea of a museum in the Presidio, so let’s do something memorable.

There seem to be two really fervent anti-CAMP camps, which of course overlap. One camp feels that the Presidio is threatened by the proposed development. Another camp hates Don Fisher. The editorial in a recent San Francisco Bay Guardian links them rather succinctly (www.sfbg.com), and says that automobiles will overrun the Presidio if CAMP is built there. I am no expert in traffic counts, but every time I go over to the Presidio, it’s almost empty. I love the post office and bank there because they have no lines! I think the place could handle a little more traffic, not to mention diversity. I have to agree with the Bay Guardian that there is a problem with asking the Presidio to be financially self-sufficient, a Reagan/Thatcher-era idea that won’t succeed. Let’s use this moment of respite from the folks who would privatize our national parks and undo that mess. While that issue is related, however, it is distinct from the CAMP proposal.

From camptoday.org

From camptoday.org

Let’s face it, the underlying issue here is really Don Fisher. He is a very successful Republican capitalist in a city that likes its rich folks to be Democrats and modest. It doesn’t help that he made his fortune on garments manufactured in Asian sweatshops or that he advocated for more parking in downtown San Francisco. Nor that his attitude has been that of an entitled white male Republican. He might take a page from a fellow zillionaire’s playbook and sponsor a music festival and look humble. But a rich guy in his 80s ain’t going to change his stripes. And if he passes away before this is settled, the collection could very well be broken up.

Let’s not forget the commonweal. My bet is that Fisher won’t compromise much more than he has and will take his collection somewhere else if this project doesn’t move forward. The anti-Fisher group may want that outcome, but the city and the region would lose an important art collection. If it belonged to somebody less controversial, we would be having a different kind of argument.

An art collection this good is a great gift. But unfortunately, this is where hubris comes in again. The art cognoscenti and some school kids (featured in a rather odd video that has been removed from CAMP’s website) have seen parts of the collection, but by and large, the public hasn’t. It is more than a little strange that there wasn’t a little more planning in this regard. Most wealthy philanthropists want to build some excitement around their donation, and to that end they mount exhibitions drawn from their collections. But as others have pointed out, Fisher seems to have adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. In a strange twist, almost every mention of Don or Doris Fisher has been removed from the CAMP website.

A number of people have commented about the Board of Supervisors’ recent public endorsement of the museum idea. That endorsement might help should Fisher have to revert to a back-up position, like returning downtown and/or to SFMOMA. The problem here is that most of the available sites in town are in Supervisor Chris Daly’s district. (He voted against the motion.) It’s a little hard to imagine Don Fisher and Chris Daly negotiating about a cup of coffee, much less a museum. However, at the end of the day, if things get stickier out at the Presidio, Fisher may have to align with SFMOMA. The museum might be willing to compromise on Fisher’s level of involvement if it looked like he was otherwise going to let the collection be dispersed. (Check out his interview with San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker at www.sfgate.com or on CAMP’s website.) You see, Fisher (or his heirs) could just sell the whole damn thing, as Pierre BergĂ© did with Yves Saint Laurent’s collection, and use the funds to start a new country.

From a strict urban design point of view, it probably is better to keep museums in the museum district. But the Presidio’s collection of bland landmarks could be improved by a dramatic piece of modernist architecture. It is narrow minded to think that we can only have historic or historicist buildings in the Presidio. And to speak of the military base as “sacred ground” is just bizarre. Sometimes a well-crafted contemporary intervention makes us see something historic more clearly, like Piano’s new Morgan Library addition in New York, or Scarpa’s additions to the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona. Remember that the Pompidou renewed the Marais and made it visible in a new way. If anything, the Presidio will be ruined by more faux historic buildings that make the place feel like Disneyland. This round, let’s hope for an engaged public process, especially with the design community, and let the architects keep designing something bolder for the 21st century and beyond. As much as I don’t want to admit it, punishing Don Fisher for being a rich capitalist by nixing his museum in the Presidio, or making its design too vanilla, probably isn’t in the region’s best long-term interests. But pushing for an artistic expression to house his collection in the Presidio is.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Too Little To Save?

The Strange Journey of Jacqueline Johnson’s Neutra Cottage in Los Altos

You can’t go home again. Sawing up and moving a historic house for eventual public use without taxpayer support is bound to be a little problematic. In the case of the Jacqueline Johnson house, one of three small cottages designed together by Richard Neutra, the surgery was a success, but it seems that the patient may have died.

Sure enough, there is a small renovated structure in the form of the original Neutra house, standing proudly on a busy street next to an existing community center. But it is not located in a place resembling its original placement in an orchard and very little of its original fabric was retained. One significant preservation issue in modernist structures is that the materials were often experimental and they fail or, in some cases, age beyond repair. But here the renovation substantially changed the original layout and purpose of the rooms and did not replicate the original building orientation. The little 750 square foot one bedroom cottage is now a small conference center with a new kitchen and bathroom available for community use. There is little clue as to the original use of each interior space despite a public video. I didn’t see any old fashioned floor plan, site plan, or historic photos when I attended the rededication in October. Perhaps that will be remedied with time.

Neutra house under reconstruction. Photo: Miltiades Mandros

Carport with two un-Neutra like posts. Photo: Miltiades Mandros

Indeed, this is a house that was literally torn apart by the fight for its preservation. Architectural designer Miltiades Mandros found the one bedroom house and a small studio behind a bamboo hedge in Los Altos when conducting research on Neutra houses in Northern California in 1999. The little cottage originally had a twin on the same site but it was destroyed and the lot subdivided many years ago. The original three structures were culturally significant because they represented an unusual commission in the Neutra oeuvre, a small very modest communal arrangement for a group of writer friends associated with Stanford University. One of them, the poet Jacqueline Johnson, went on to marry the well known painter, Gordon Onslow Ford. (Together they later commissioned noted Bay Area architect Warren Callister to design their home in Inverness.) It was Johnson’s modest bungalow that somehow survived.

The house’s recent owner, John Gusto, asked Mandros to design an addition to the Johnson cottage, which the city’s historical commission did not approve. Unable to expand the house, Gusto decided to sell the property. He and Mandros tried to find buyers who might save the modest house and relocate it. Eventually, a deal was worked out whereby Gusto donated the house to the Los Altos Foundation who would move the structure to land owned by the city. Los Altos Historic Commission member Justin Drewes championed the idea of the city donating the land for the project.

What happened next gets a little murky. The city was not willing to pay for the restoration of the modernist cottage beyond providing the vacant parcel of land. The fight for the little Neutra might have ended when the city said they had no money, but a few vocal citizens, including someone named King Lear, rallied to save the house. Without any government funding the local citizenry had to raise all of the money to relocate and renovate the house. At some point a decision was made to alter the house so that it could function as a community center. Restoration became adaptive reuse.

Citizens enjoying the patio. Photo: Miltiades Mandros

There is little substantive information on the Neutra House Project website about the restoration process. According to Mandros, who has followed the project for many years, there is some original siding remaining but little else. According to Lear, one of the community leaders and advocates of the renovation, some corrections are being made based on recent reviews from Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s architect son, as well as the Neutra scholar Barbara Lamprecht.

Apparently, there is no architect of record for the project and no historian or conservator was hired. That is not to say that the grass roots efforts were not well intended. Small suburban communities, even affluent ones like Los Altos, are just beginning to recognize the cultural value of mid-century cultural resources, but often they are not willing or able to secure government funds to preserve those resources. One advantage of government subsidy is oversight and hopefully, a process that follows the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Preservation.

The house before it was moved. Photo: Miltiades Mandros.

The cottage being relocated. Photos: John Gusto.

But the result here is not preservation, nor does it tell us much about the early thinking of Richard Neutra. What we have is a reproduction of an exterior of a portion of a modest compound that Neutra designed in 1935. The profound lessons for other relatively young suburban townships are not found in the reconstruction of the exterior of this house, but in the strange process of trying to save this landmark. To preserve modernist landmarks communities need a paid architect, historian, and conservator. To hire those professionals a town needs the financial support of the city fathers and mothers. Maybe this new era brings more possibility about government support; maybe we can preserve more than the simple outlines of a modernist treasure.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Marvin Rand Interview in LA Architect

Marvin Rand passed away last week. I remember interviewing him in a restaurant in 1990 for LA Architect. He was cranky, competitive, and endearing. Here is the interview as it ran in the April 1990 issue of LA Architect.

Marvin Rand

Hollywood Bowl photo by Marvin Rand

When did you start taking pictures?

I entered Los Angeles City College to study photography at the age of 17, during WWII. Then at the age of 18 I was drafted. I took the basic training, they gave me five months of intensive training, both aerial and ground, and then they shipped me out. I spent 14 months in Guam as a photographer.

I came back in 1945, and they allowed me to go directly back into Los Angeles City College in mid semester. I stayed there until 1948. It was a wonderful experience to have Hal Jordan, a mature, really expert photographer teaching photography to six of us. Then Jordan said you better go to Art Center for polish. So I went there and graduated in 1950. There were wonderful instructors at Art Center; Alvin Lustig was my immediate mentor.

Were you always involved in architectural photography?

I came out of Art Center as an advertising photographer. After graduating, we decided to form a group from Art Center to get input from the people who were well known in photography, graphic design, architecture, and writing. Esther McCoy, Charles Eames, and Saul Bass all came and spoke; we had the cream of the city in the group, which went on for about two years. The Eames helped us, Saul Bass helped us, Esther was my direct mentor.

What format do you work in, and do you prefer black and white or color?

I usually work in 4x5. I do some assignments in 35mm, but not frequently. I prefer a larger camera. All assignments are shot in color and black and white.

I think color is here to stay. Black and white will always be secondary now. The interesting thing is that black and white is archival, and if done properly it will last well over 100 years. From the moment you process color film it starts to deteriorate. I do all my historical work in black and white.

Do architects accompany you on photo shoots?

I work side by side with the architect on occasion. Craig Ellwood used to go out with me all the time. I would give Craig a 35mm camera and I would work the big camera. When we got the film back we could put it on the table and study it. In a funny way it reinforced some of the thinking I had about architecture and the International Style. It helped me quite a bit to get feedback from a client.

Do you perceive yourself as photographing for history?

The architectural photographer should never be set up as a critic. Our role is to enhance and state the content of the building in an aesthetic way. The architectural historian should evaluate whether or not a building is important. I’m the photographer who sees it and has to sensitively photograph it so that architecture has a great deal of content and meaning.