- Historic Sites
This puckish, nearly forgotten California architect built his own distinctive style on the simple principle that beauty alone endures
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
In the winter of 1953, a few days after his ninety-first birthday, Bernard Ralph Maybeck granted a lengthy interview to a public service radio station in Berkeley, California, the city in which he had lived and worked for six decades. In some respects the interview evidenced little more than the casual curiosity that people feel about someone who has been around for a long, long time. But to a greater extent, it denoted a sudden, belated realization in his hometown that Maybeck, whose work was almost entirely concentrated in a small area of northern California, whose best-known buildings were unclassifiable hybrids of contemporary materials and traditional forms, and whose career had flowered and faded so long ago that almost everyone thought him long dead, was an architectural genius of major international importance.
The claim was in dispute, of course. In Maybeck’s ninetieth year, the American Institute of Architects had at last awarded him its gold medal, largely in recognition of buildings he had completed thirty or forty years earlier. Still, the words most often used to describe Maybeck and his work—such words as eclectic, poetic, anachronistic, improvisational, romantic, neobaroque, mystical, and idiosyncratic—were certainly not the words that describe the dominant qualities of twentieth-century architecture. To the contrary, most of these words describe precisely what modern architecture is not . Maybeck’s view of himself, he told the interviewer from Station KPFA, was that he had “never been an architect.” He had been merely a discriminating participant in the human search for beauty, “a man who appreciates the ideas of other men, that’s all.”
Maybeck had never established a “school” or a style that bore his name. He had never propounded a coherent philosophy, a theory of architecture, save that architecture must aspire to “beauty,” a slippery attribute at best. He seemed to have few imitators. (Perhaps he was inimitable.) He had never fathered a skyscraper, the characteristic monument of his age. He had not scattered the spores of his inspiration in Europe, Asia, or South America. Much of his work, by cruel chance, had been destroyed by fires or other natural disasters. And yet, there was that church, those homes, that huge and haunting palace by the bay …
Inevitably, Maybeck’s late-blooming fame became entwined with his longevity, his eccentricities: his odd, gnomelike little figure, scarcely more than five feet tall, dressed in bib overalls of his own design, sporting a Seven Dwarfs beard and a crocheted tamo’-shanter; his grandiose proposals for unbuildable cities and campuses conceived on the scale of imperial Rome; his weird social circle of Berkeley aesthetes, domiciled in wind-swept redwood sleeping porches, pseudo-Grecian temples, and gunny-sack cloisters up in the misty, dripping eucalyptus forests above the University of California; his exaggerated horror of milk, dairy products, tobacco smoke, and honey (“It gets into your elbows”); his faddish flirtations with vegetarianism, antivivisectionism, Japanese diet regimens. It was all too easy during Maybeck’s last years to attribute his renown to his peculiarities, to think of him always as he was at the end, sitting barefoot, bright-eyed, sunburned, in a canvas camp chair by his radio, or standing at his drafting board in the patio of a breezy house with a great redwood-timbered ceiling and a view of the bay through restless branches; an enormous fireplace, pine cones, pastel chalks, large dogs, fresh air; an old man whose life, like his creations, linked the present to the past.
As for Maybeck, his thoughts had a way of running back, with the selective hindsight of the aged. When the interviewer from the station asked him on that February afternoon to recount the high points of his career, Maybeck remembered his days as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1880’s, the days that he now believed had shaped the pattern of his life. It was at the Beaux-Arts, Maybeck recalled, in the atelier of Monsieur Jules-Louis André, that he had learned the significance of the line and had encountered the Romanesque. It was there that he had developed the ambition and the passion to become an architect.
Born in New York City in 1862, Maybeck had gone to Paris at nineteen to study furniture design. His father, an immigrant from Germany, was a master woodcarver in a furniture manufactory in lower Manhattan; his mother, who died when Maybeck was three, had hoped her son would become an artist. Respectful of his wife’s wishes, Maybeck’s father imposed artistic tutelage. (“Other boys played ball. I had to draw and draw.”) Maybeck was an indifferent student in reading and writing, but he was apt in handicrafts. After a brief try at college, he joined his father’s firm as an apprentice at three dollars a month, working on interior decorations for Pullman Palace cars. In spare moments he devised and patented a reversible passenger seat. (Maybeck never profited from his invention; he sold the rights to it in 1886.) By the time he boarded the ship for France, reeling from the fumes of his first cigar, he had already developed a taste for rich colors, deep textures, and the sheen of well-tooled wood.