Q & A with “Cityscapes” author John King

An outgrowth of “Cityscape,” a weekly column that debuted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, Cityscapes is part history, part guidebook, and part architectural primer. John King is the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. He joined the paper in 1992 and has been in his current post since 2001. His writing on architecture and urban design has been honored by groups including the California Preservation Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the California chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2002 and 2003.

What are the first three things you look for when looking at a building?
How it meets the street is essential, because that sets the tone from the start. The quality of execution counts more for me than style; if a building has clarity and snap, looks are secondary. And then there’s the challenge of context. Does the building fit into its surroundings, even if the fit is provocative? Or is it just a lump unto itself? The latter is too often the norm.

What were your favorite places as a kid?
Growing up in Walnut Creek, a pal and I used to head into “The City” every quarter or so. We’d take BART, ride the cable car to the Cannery, explore North Beach, have lunch in Chinatown and then meander back towards BART. I quickly realized that, say, Grant Avenue was different than, say, Sunvalley Mall in Concord. And that I preferred the former.

What is the most notable trend right now in architecture? 
I’m really excited at how, after decades of talk, transit-oriented development is taking root in the suburbs as well as older cities such as Oakland and Berkeley. The frustrating thing is, most of it isn’t very good in any sort of urbanistic way. The quantity and location is laudable; now we need developers and architects who genuinely strive to make places where people will want to be, not simply structures that are convenient.

Is there an architectural style that suits cities best? 
No. If a building is well-proportioned, with good details and an inviting sidewalk presence, it doesn’t matter whether the details are classical or modern, gothic or high-tech, flat-topped or crowned with a spire.

If readers could take one thing away from Cityscapes what would it be?
Buildings aren’t simply objects. They’re parts of a whole—and the whole is in a state of constant flux. Change is a fact of life in cities, and we should relish chances to learn from the shifting perspectives around us.

Any advice for aspiring architects?
Pay attention to the details and whatever you do, do it with conviction. When architecture becomes a business, where a building has no more nobility than a to-do list, we all lose out.

Did you study architecture in college?
Nope. That’s the beauty of journalism—you get to follow your passions, and learn on the job.