In Berkeley, every day is a Maybeck celebration, with so many of the iconic architect's residences and public buildings located there. But next weekend, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, or BAHA, makes it official with a series of events focusing on the enduring influence of Bernard Maybeck, the visionary whose sensitivity to surrounding landscapes, interest in modern materials and consummately artful appropriation of a vast array of historical styles continue to endow Berkeley with its distinctive feel.
The Maybeck Legacy Celebration Weekend isn't pegged to any particular anniversary (his 150th birthday passed quietly last year). Rather, the weekend's events center on the Bay Area premiere of Paul Bockhorst's quietly compelling new documentary "Pursuing Beauty: The Architecture of Bernard Maybeck," which screens Friday at Berkeley's Town and Gown Club, a celebrated 1899 building designed, naturally, by Maybeck. The documentary is slated for a fall broadcast on public television, Bockhorst says, but no dates have been set on KQED or KTEH.
Born in New York City and educated at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Maybeck moved to Berkeley in 1892. During a decadelong stint teaching in the University of California's Civil Engineering College (1894-1903), he mentored several budding architects, most importantly Julia Morgan, who, with his help, became the first woman admitted to L'École des Beaux-Arts. In Bockhorst's film, he emerges as a quintessentially American figure, a pragmatic idealist unafraid of progress but passionately committed to timeless aesthetic values.
"I think of Maybeck as a 19th-century romantic who used 20th-century materials to create structures that speak across time," says Bockhorst, whose documentary beautifully captures Maybeck's epiphany as a student in Paris at the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés with "light streaming in, women doing lacework and a choir practicing. He sat down captivated by it all, and suddenly all these different elements fused into a symphonic experience. He experienced that church as something powerfully alive and saw at that moment an emotional side to architecture."'
Making the doc
Bockhorst, an Emmy Award—winning filmmaker known for documentaries such as "Greene & Greene: The Art of Architecture" and "Designing With Nature: Arts & Crafts Architecture in Northern California," came by his love of Maybeck through formative experiences in his youth. He grew up in Kensington, an unincorporated Contra Costa County community nestled next to Berkeley in the hills, and often took the steep pedestrian pathways to school.
"I really felt Maybeck's presence through the architecture," Bockhorst says. "The houses were magical to me. Every so often, I went inside one, and they had those large stone fireplaces that stirred my imagination.
"You conjure images of storytelling, the passing on of stories and legends around that focus of family life. It was only later that I began to learn about what an extraordinary, exemplary person he was. My motivation in making the film was to talk about the man as much as the work."
No project better captures Maybeck's gift for rapturous composition than the Palace of the Fine Arts and lagoon, a commission for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (a centenary that should be duly celebrated). He contributed several other landmarks to San Francisco, but Berkeley provided the ideal setting for his work. There's no official count of Maybeck buildings in the city, but according to BAHA the number ranges from four dozen to five dozen.
While Maybeck lost his San Francisco office and records in the 1906 earthquake, in many ways the city's signature tragedy provided him with the opportunity of a lifetime. He not only ended up designing numerous Berkeley homes for families who fled the destruction, but the rapid development in the hills allowed him to promote his ideas of adapting buildings and communities to the existing landscape, rather than imposing them on the environment.
Working with nature
"He saw the mistakes made in San Francisco, the way streets were cut into the hills, laying a mesh over the hills rather than working with them," Bockhorst says. "The residential development of Berkeley followed a radically different direction. Though he was a great individualist, he believed strongly in community."
Maybeck was already at the forefront of Berkeley's planning efforts through his friendship with Charles Keeler. The naturalist and poet's 1904 book "The Simple Home," promoting uncluttered design and healthy living, became a foundational text for the community leaders who coalesced around the Hillside Club. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, Maybeck and Keeler "went much further in that direction, preaching building in harmony with nature, building along contour lines of the hills," Bockhorst says.
The Maybeck celebration offers several choice opportunities to experience the architect's vision up close. BAHA offers guided tours of UC Berkeley's Faculty Club on Friday afternoon and the Palace of Fine Arts on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon, a reservation-only reception takes place at the Maybeck-designed Guy Hyde Chick House in Oakland's Claremont district (tickets $35).
The celebration ends on Sunday focusing on Maybeck's most sublime masterpiece, with a guided walking tour of the neighborhood surrounding Berkeley's First Church of Christ, Scientist, and an open house at the church, a National Historic Landmark. (Bockhorst's minidocumentary "An American Masterpiece" offers a detailed look at the building.)
Completed in 1910, the church embodies everything that makes Maybeck such an inventive and uncannily contemporary designer.
Undeterred by the conventions of the day, he effortlessly synthesizes an international melange of styles, from European Gothic and Japanese to Nordic and Celtic. The result is a vibrant, spiritually charged space that feels utterly at home amid the wood-shingle structures south of the UC Berkeley campus.
"He prided himself on using history," says architect William Marquand, who wrote the first monograph on First Church of Christ, Scientist, and helped found the Maybeck Society. "He never was a rule-follower. He was too talented for that. It was easy for him to master the rules, and after that why use them anymore? He became a real voice for something new. He was great at combining high-art and vernacular aesthetics, an approach that continues to influence modern architecture in the Bay Area, like where you see sliding glass doors on barn hardware."
Marquand, like many architects, considers that Maybeck still has much to teach us. He was prescient in his preference for natural materials, but his contribution to a deeper understanding of sustainability is perhaps more consequential, Marquand says, citing architect Sarah Susanka from Mark Wilson's well-received 2011 biography "Bernard Maybeck: Architect of Elegance."
"She ties him to sustainability, in that buildings need to be beautiful because if they're beautiful they'll be taken care of. In talking about sustainability, nobody's looking at design and beauty. Maybeck understood beauty as a timeless thing, and we should be incorporating that in our concept of sustainability."
Maybeck Legacy Celebration Weekend
Presented by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
When: June 28-30
Where: Locations in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco
Information/reservations: 510-841-2242, http://berkeleyheritage.com, email email@example.com
June 28: Guided tour of Faculty Club, UC Berkeley campus, 1-2 p.m., free; and screening of "Pursuing Beauty: The Architecture of Bernard Maybeck," documentary film by Paul Bockhorst, 7:30 p.m., Town and Gown Club, 2401 Dwight Way, Berkeley, $35, $30 in advance, email firstname.lastname@example.org, http://berkeleyheritage.com
June 29: Guided tour of Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco, 10-11 a.m., free (reservation required by emailing email@example.com); and reception at Guy Hyde Chick House, 7133 Chabot Road, Oakland, 3-5 p.m., $35 (reservation required by going to http://berkeleyheritage.com)
June 30: Guided walking tour of neighborhood surrounding First Church of Christ, Scientist, 2619 Dwight Way, Berkeley, free; and open house at the church, 3-5 p.m., free