SF rejects free museum


John King, the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, occasionally displays reasonable judgment, which is considerably more often than most architecture critics. But in his piece for Metropolis¬†defending the city’s rejection of a free, $700 million museum to be donated by filmmaker George Lucas, King’s convoluted reasoning does not successfully mask the truth.

The truth is that the powers that be in San Franciso, mostly filthy rich foundations, rejected Lucas’s offer because its design, by the Urban Design Group of Dallas, would have been forthrightly classical.

No other conclusion is plausible. King tries to gently insert in the reader’s mind that the public rejected the proposal, but it is clear that it was rejected so that some other facility – another museum or something else – could be designed by one of their modernist friends.

Yes, plain and simple: social corruption disguised as public concern.

King says the Lucas proposal “would make most municipalities swoon,” but that in fact, they should learn from this that “big, easy answers aren’t nearly as persuasive as the underlying logic of place.” But King does an unusually poor job of backing his case up with evidence.

Apparently, a big empty lot with a big-box sporting-goods emporium should not be replaced by a grand classical edifice housing a museum that would, indeed, make most civic tourism offices swoon. Readers can glean from King’s article what would have been put in there by Lucas. I found it alluring. But King’s description of the context into which would fit whatever is built did not even begin to persuade me that a museum would be unworthy of the space, or anything but an addition to its sense of place. Maybe that’s why he used the curious phrase “logic of place” rather than “sense of place.”

Then, on the last page, he brings in, as an honest critic would have to do, the “private foundations who have donated $75 million to make today’s Presidio what it is” out of federal land, once a military base, near the Golden Gate Bridge. In other words, the fancy pants who, in all probability, wanted a big museum, yes, but rather one designed by one of the usual suspects to deface yet more delicious land in San Franciso.

I have a feeling that Lucas, however much he’s accomplished in the film world, is simply not part of the in crowd, and that the rejection of his more-than-generous offer was an example of local artist wannabes circling the wagons on behalf of their own tainted gods.

I wonder why this piece appeared in Metropolis rather than King’s regular space in the San Francisco Chronicle. Probably because the readers of the Chronicle would be more likely to see through the bullshit than the readers of Metropolis, who are easily seduced by vague incoherencies that mimic (and urge) their preferred types of architecture. I don’t know, and perhaps I’m being unfair to King, who is a fine writer and, so far as I know (having met him only once and chatted online with him a couple of times) a good regular guy and amiable fellow. But I think he’s paying some sort of dues with this clearly unconvincing piece of claptrap. Read it here. You decide.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to SF rejects free museum

  1. GJP says:

    Do you think they may have rejected it because it is simply a very bland, unimaginative design?
    It seems difficult to argue as you do, when fundamentally the proposal has nothing eloquent to say.


    • It’s a matter of relative merit, G. Even in its blandness, the traditional design is superior to any conceivable modernist design. And, given the resources of the client, there is always the possibility that the result will be superior to the proposal. The blandness of the design may merely be apparent, since often it is the blandness of the architectural rendering that is at fault. Rendering ain’t what it used to be.


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  4. frumpycat says:

    Freaking awesome. Totally agree about the whole Lucas fiasco and about King. Funny enough he goes on and on how the Presidio was “saved” from Lucas but doesn’t mention that the old money bought council actually offered him another space on the presidio (have their cake and eat it too) after trying to get George to invest in the Palace of Fine Arts (future superfund site). Surprised (nah, not really) that King didn’t mention that.


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