John King talks cityscapes, including his Berkeley picks

John King: when it comes to buildings Berkeleyans are even more conservative than San Franciscans, he says. Photo: Laura Morton

John King, staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, is a skilled observer of the urban terrain. His new book, “Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings” (Heyday; $14.95), is drawn from his “Cityscapes” column in the Sunday paper and celebrates serendipitous juxtapositions of 50 of his favorite buildings. Berkeleyside caught up with King, who lives in Berkeley, and asked him about his perspectives — including on Berkeley buildings that speak to him.

Do you bump into a lot of lamp-posts?

Lamp-posts, no. But I take my eyes off the road to look at buildings far too often when I’m behind the wheel of a car — so far without dire consequences, thank goodness.

How do you go about collecting your “cityscapes”? Is it on the hoof, camera in hand? Is it mostly happenstance rather than searching them out?


Three ways. Some buildings are favorites I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about. Some are recommended to me by readers, or I’ve pulled from guidebooks (if I’m heading to the Presidio for a review, for instance, I’ll schedule an extra hour or so to look at some neighborhoods and check out candidates along the way). And some are purely by chance: when you’re in the mood for architecture, serendipity kicks in. Buildings I’ve passed a dozen times will suddenly catch my eye.

Are all cities an invigorating “clash of styles” as you put it in the book, or does San Francisco have particular elements that make its “cityscapes” particularly compelling?

San Francisco has three factors in its favor. Geography’s the most invigorating – the hills and bay are constant reminders of nature that add a spark the exact same buildings wouldn’t have in the Central Valley or on some Midwestern plain. Then there’s the odd way that geography combines with the grid – especially when the grid in fact is a collage of grids that in turn collide with each other. Finally, more prosaic, San Francisco’s a remarkably dense city by American standards, so the buildings jostle each other.

Kayak House, Mission Creek Park. Photo: John King

You speak in the book of the architectural conservatism of many San Franciscans, despite their ostensible progressive values. Are Berkeleyans that way? If so, why do you think that is?

Berkeley’s probably even more conservative. A large segment of the population – and still a politically active one – chose to live here decades ago because the individuals see this as a place uniquely attuned to their cultural and social and political values. The only place to live. And if you’ve found your own personal Eden, then why should anyone be allowed to change it in ways of which you don’t approve?

You divide your book into sections  — Icons, Styles and Masters, Landscape, Change. If you had to choose one Berkeley building for each of those categories, what would it be and why?

Icons? That’s easy: the Campanile. No other single structure is so widely identified with Berkeley, not even – sorry, foodies – the woodsy presence of Chez Panisse. My runner-up for icon would probably be the Berkeley Community Theater, for its connections with the WPA and downtown educational presence


King approves of the Chase bank building on Solano. Photo: John King

Styles and Masters: I feel obligated to go with the Julia Morgan Theater, because it’s a threefer, a great building by a revered local master that also has the materiality and aura that seems so, well, Berkeley. A small bit of contrarian in me argues for the modern bank at the corner of Solano and Fresno avenues as a pure display of how that era defined and responded to context (it’s all in the volumes, rather than the skin treatment). But even if you like it – and I do – it sure ain’t quintessential Berkeley.

Landscape: An abundance of examples to choose from – Berkeley’s like San Francisco, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – so I’ll indulge myself.  Greenwood Common. The magic can’t be conveyed in a photograph, you need to visit. What an exquisitely modest argument for how American cities could have developed.

Change: This is a tough one – provocative change isn’t Berkeley’s forte – but the garage-turned-Freight & Salvage is a fresh example that’s also architecturally rewarding. Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects did a great job.

Might “Cityscapes Berkeley” be next?

I did two months of Cityscapes last summer on Oakland, and it was a kick. Maybe that should be my summer vacation this year… I’d save on BART tickets!