March 18th, 2012
“Um… You know, the theater thingie. The one that looks like it will collapse. Look, just keep looking to the right of the bus window and you wouldn’t miss it. Its yellow and has a giant theater banner sticking out. I will meet you there?”
Why do certain building stand out in people’s mind? How well do you know the history of your neighborhood? I like to think that I know a bit more than most people, since I do have a fascination for architecture history. But there are so many neighborhood in San Francisco, and they all have such rich history. With my family’s tendency to move from one house to another, I ends up knowing a little about everything, but not an expert on any. Still, I know very early on that each neighborhood has something distinguish, something that people use to direct and navigate, some sort of structure that – whether loved or hated – is the landmark of that place.
A few weeks ago, I returned to the cultural hub of Richmond, which I once frequented when I live in the Sunset District as an high school student. A few buildings is always memorable, even though they are not exactly the symbol of architectural beauty and tend to be a bit rundown. As a young student, I didn’t really understand why it left such a mental mark. In fact, I didn’t even realized they had became a landmark in my mind until I attended the Rec Ride on Reid Brothers Architects in February. San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has started to host several bike ride again as the sun came back (well, not now. It’s pouring this weeks). They even had a class on how to host a bike ride for its member. The Reid Brothers ride is one of the old classics, hosted by the Coalition’s very own program director.
The building described at the start of this post is the Alexandria Theater. It’s been there forever in my memory. I always did wonder if anyone actually use it. It’s the third building we saw, so let me jump back to the beginning.
First, we gathered at the Velo Rouge Cafe. It is a good place for bicyclist, as not only do they have a lot of bike racks, they give 10% discount to SF Bicycle Coalition member. They have a pretty good street corner there for gathering, and by the time I got there, a huge crowd had gathered. My jaws dropped at the number – How the heck are we going to do a ride with this big number of people!?
But the Coalition managed. Before the ride start, we were given some papers with information on which building we were going and news articles on some of the buildings. There were a few Coalition veteran members, whom later stayed at the end of the line to make sure no one get lost. I ran out of steam later, so that system really helped me in the end. Turned out I was not adjusting well to the weird system of gears of my newly-brought bike, and one of the veteran members kindly helped me figure it out.
The tour leader was Andy Thornley, and he started by telling us about how he got interested in Reid Brothers even though he didn’t know much about architecture at first. It is quite hilarious how he just kept coming across the Reid Brothers’ architecture. I would write more about his story, but I found out he wrote an article that does a better job than I can, so I will just direct you to it.
The buildings we viewed are: Marshall Hale House, Coliseum Theater, Alexandria Theater, Balboa Theater, Caretaker’s Cottage beside the Murphy windmill, Polo Field Stadium (incomplete), Cliff House, and Spreckels Temple of Music between Deyoung and Academy of Science.
I recently finally started my Flickr account, so I will direct you there:
The truth is, I never heard about the Reid Brothers before this tour. Yet, I remember them quite clearly. If someone shows a Reid building photo to me, I can point out exactly where they are even before this ride. Yet strangely, I never thought about who designed it. It is not like the Federal Building or the De Young. They didn’t have a modern giant architect, or some sort of revolutionary design. In fact, according to Andy, Reid Brothers build whatever their client commissioned – Egyptian, Greek, Classical, etc. For those who are Ayn Rand fans or modern purist, their methods are probably nightmare come true. And in the modern era of consumption culture, something so aged tends to get ignored as old and outdated. Its like what I wrote in the beginning of this post – it is going to be commented as “that old thingie that looks like it will collapse” and not “that beautiful glass structure”. Yet as I listened to Andy, the brothers really reflected the San Francisco culture and politics of the time. They were in the middle of that struggle, of that time when the city is redeveloping and recovering from the Earthquake. Why had they played such a big role?
I think the willingness to build any style is part of their professionalism, and their charm to navigate between different client needs are their strength. Client’s need and style are only part of architecture. Style can be interpreted so many ways, and its not like the Reid Brothers just rebuild the ancient Egyptian pyramid and temples. No, the building contains modern content and modern structure. In addition, architecture is not just visual or stand alone. They have technical, historical, cultural, and functional factors. Will the building be able to convert to other usage? How strong is it? Does it blend into its neighborhood? Does it works with its initial usage? What is its role in the community?
One thing Andy mentioned is that Reid Brothers’ architecture are often reuse for other purposes. That is the thing: their buildings are stylized with historical elements and scales that makes it stands out a bit more than the surrounding neighborhood, just something that says “No, I am not just a house.”, but simple and mellow enough that it doesn’t scream “I am the famous theater by xyz.” Its easy to remember them, and its easy to recognize that its from the Richmond district. It didn’t popped out, but it will last. It is not going to be the building that people dream about going or living in, but it stands out in the mind as some place special.
Well, that’s the reflection of my ride that day. Its amazing how architecture can be learn everywhere. I like how Andy learned so much about the Reid Brothers though a series of coincidence. But then, there is the famous Japanese saying that ” Nothing is coincidence in the world; There is only Hitsuzen (destiny, fate)”. I have been bumping into David Baker’s building and Salesforce news constantly for the last few months. Maybe I should do some research on that myself!