Q & A with “Cityscapes 2” author John King


In his follow-up to Cityscapes: San Francisco and Its Buildings, urban design critic John King continues to challenge us to take notice of our surroundings—even as the built environment of San Francisco changes at an astonishing clip. Based on his Cityscape column in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new book Cityscapes 2: Reading the Architecture of San Francisco highlights fifty structures that tell a compelling (and often contradictory) story about The City.

How do you select from, and revise, your Cityscape columns to fit the parameters of a book?

I don’t want a book that says, “Look at these pretty and/or cool buildings and aren’t they pretty and/or cool?” Rather, I want to explore themes about how cities fit together, and how buildings can strike a similar chord even though they might have quite different styles or scales. The themes that emerge determine the buildings I select (which means I left some of my favorites on the cutting-room floor, sorry to say!). As for the editing, I have a bit more space to work with—but also find myself working hard to thin out the transitions and adjectives that I re-use in The Chronicle more than I would care to admit.

Have you always taken your own photographs of structures you critique? Does photographing help you notice something about a building you otherwise might miss?

Second question first: absolutely. When I look through a lens, or walk through the city with the camera around my neck, I look at things more sharply; in fact, some buildings I’ve done in Cityscape I never noticed until on my way to shoot something else, even if I’ve walked down that block a dozen times before. As for taking my own photographs, blame it on luck—when Cityscape began, Kathleen Hennessy was the Chronicle’s photo editor. She said that I knew why I was writing about a building so I should shoot it as well, and we went from there!

When people think of S.F. architecture, I expect most minds go toward the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge. What prompted you to include relatively obscure structures along with the iconic?

That’s what a city is about, especially this one. The icons are terrific, but what resonates is how all the pieces fit together. Sometimes something as simple as an off-ramp, as with the new ones on the west end of the Bay Bridge, can convey the underlying rhythms of a place.

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In the first Cityscapes Q&A, you talked about the challenge of context: “Does the building fit into its surroundings, even if the fit is provocative?” With the city going through such rapid change, how do you take context into account when you look at a particular structure, given what may happen next?

It’s getting more difficult! I found myself re-shooting several buildings in the new book, such as the Embarcadero Substation, because their neighbors were different than when they appeared in the paper’s Cityscape column. In a fascinating way, though, that argues for strong architecture of the present. As the context shifts, you can see the values of certain era emerge, facets you might have taken for granted when things were new.

With Cityscapes, your goal was to show readers that buildings are parts of a whole, and that whole is in a state of constant flux. Awareness of change is a driving theme in Cityscapes 2, so is your goal with this new book the same, or do you have other things in mind as well?

Maybe it’s that I’m a history major who learned architecture on the sly as a journalist, but I love what buildings reveal to us—about history, about the tactile depth of materials, about the balancing act between designing for the eye and designing for everyday life. And I covered San Francisco City Hall, so I know that an era’s politics leave their mark long after the hot-button issues fade. In Cityscapes 2, I want to confront readers with the different layers of change and flux; I also want to show them how much else is waiting to be seen.