Conversations with Pierluigi Serraino
Interior Design magazine contributor Kenneth Caldwell talks with Pierluigi Serraino about modernism in Northern California.
Kenneth Caldwell -- Interior Design, 3/30/2007 1:15:00 PM
Every day Pierluigi Serraino goes to work as a designer at Anshen+Allen Architects in San Francisco. After his family goes to bed in the evenings, he writes. He is more than an architectural historian and cultural critic—he’s a treasure hunter. Serraino uncovers 20th-century architectural gems for the rest of us, and the resurgence of interest in mid-century modernism, in part, can be linked to his book, Modernism Rediscovered, which brought some unknown images from photographer Julius Shulman’s incredible archive into the light. His new book, NorCalMod, does something similar, but also argues that modernism was alive and well in Northern California when everybody thought that only shingles were in vogue. In the March issue of Interior Design, we revisit one of the houses mentioned in the book, designed by a little-known Bay Area architect, Don Knorr, and furnished by the celebrated designer Alexander Girard. This house has not been seen in print since it was first built in 1971. This is but one result of his foraging for unknown masterpieces.
In NorCalMod, Serraino uses the 20th century situation in Northern California to explore larger themes about modern architecture, including the impact of media, the power of the available photographic image, and the influence of a dominant architectural elite in the public’s understanding of architectural culture. We sat down with him in his kitchen to talk about the current scene in the Bay Area and what impact his recent discoveries might have.
Kenneth Caldwell: In your new book, you seem to be saying that there was a conspiracy against modernism here on the West Coast. Can you elaborate?
Pierluigi Serraino: I believe there was a concerted effort to use the Bay Area as an outpost of national identity. Modernist architecture was rooted in Germany, not America. Modern architecture was, in part, about the machine and technology, whereas American architecture was more about celebrating the value of the land. I think that the East Coast hatched that idea and the West Coast internalized it. The difference between the modernist and the regionalist camps became irreconcilable. Remember, the concept of a Bay Region style came from the East Coast media, from Lewis Mumford. You could say that Mumford initiated this conspiracy and William Wurster implemented it.
KC: With all the attention modernism is getting here in Northern California, do you detect a shift in design tastes in San Francisco?
PS: I see a lot more confidence from the client’s perspective. Modernism has always believed in the power of technology to deliver an improvement in living conditions. So, when technology is used to address environmental consciousness, the recent modern buildings reinforce that idea. The clients are asking for it.
KC: What else do you attribute this evolution to?
PS: A number of factors. Definitely the death of postmodernism as a cultural proposition in architecture, although I don’t think that postmodernism is dead in terms of the ideas that it delivers.
Another big factor is the digital revolution. We are at the epicenter of this in the Bay Area. What we have experienced in the last few years is an invasion of digital opportunities that will transform our lives and radically change our patterns of living.
Architecture is always responsive to these forces. The level of computer literacy has changed a lot of the assumptions about how the future will be. Every working person has email, a cell phone, and an iPod, and everybody has more mobility.
KC: Do you think all of this technology has allowed the sponsors, consumers, and creators of the building environment to move away from historicism and an obsession with the built context?
PS: Yes, I think there is a renewed faith in the positive impact of technology.
KC: And that means faith in the future?
PS: Faith in the possibilities of having an environment that is fine-tuned, both to the natural environment and to the cultural patterns in which people are rooted.
Architecture reacts to technology; it does not produce technology. So how does an invention percolate into architectural thought? It’s a challenge for any architect committed to some advance in design.
People take that challenge in different ways. These days there is a lot of talk about collaboration, teamwork, and the connectivity that the computer affords us. But this doesn’t mean that there is architectural collaboration. It only means that there is the hope that architecture will be more integrated, and that all the professionals will one day create a package that will be fault-free in terms of its performance. It will be responsible to the environment and will not pollute and so forth. But all this stuff doesn’t produce the space.It only produces objects that have certain performances.
KC: Can you talk about some of the spaces that are being designed now in San Francisco that might not have been designed a few years ago? What’s changed?
PS: Clients are now seeing that modernism can provide customized responses. Think about the positive reception generated by the speculative townhouses designed by Owen Kennerly and Addison Strong on Guerrero Street. There is also the importance of some other Bay Area innovations, such as Design Within Reach. This has helped establish some design literacy. Some of this literacy is for a very dated language related to early modernism, but I think San Francisco offers opportunities for design expression because so many pockets of the city are going to be redesigned and the greater Bay Area has many opportunities for further connectivity.
KC: Let’s go back to that building on Guerrero Street for a moment. What does that portend?
PS: These small interventions respond to the city very directly, but in a contemporary modernist language, not a nostalgic one. And now we are seeing some larger buildings as well. North of Market Street most of the games have been played out. Clearly South of Market is where the transformation is happening. We are seeing a densification of the city. It’s not just office buildings, but mixed-use buildings, which have been talked about for a while but not implemented.
KC: Can you give us some examples?
PS: The one that is going to create the greatest amount of traction for new development is the Federal Building by Morphosis. The reason is that the project is visible from everywhere in the city. You see it when you’re driving down Leavenworth, from the freeway. It’s both massive and slender, and takes on very different forms depending on where you are. It has a large visual footprint, a large presence.
KC: But not a large footprint in terms of square footage or carbon usage?
PS: Right, the sunscreens aren’t just for appearance—they work. Also, it’s very bold at the street level. Pelli’s building at 560 Mission Street, which helped push the modernist agenda in San Francisco, has a fairly traditional modern approach in terms of what happens at the base. SOM’s building, 101 Second, is more progressive because it negotiates with the small-scale fragments of the city around it. It’s a very smart move.
KC: What about Herzog and de Meuron’s de Young Museum?
PS: Certainly the building shows what modernism can do in a natural setting, admittedly a man-made natural setting, but it does not have to take the heat of being in the middle of the city. So, in that way, it is not really sending a positive message about modernism as part of a rich urban experience. It’s not engaging in some of the debates and challenges about building between the Civic Center and downtown. It’s sort of a hidden building that you have to look for.
KC: But it is an exciting moment.
PS: Oh yes. So, you have downtown, Yerba Buena Center, the Civic Center, and sometime next year, Renzo Piano’s Academy of Sciences. It’s a powerful line across the city. There are still a lot of battles that go on to make these buildings, especially in rarefied areas like Pacific Heights and Berkeley. But the fact that UC Berkeley chose Toyo Ito to design its new art museum represents an enormous change in attitude. Our current modernist legacy won’t be a secret this time.
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