By Hannah Simonson
Any architectural historian will tell you that one of the great joys of the work (job, if you are fortunate enough for it to also be your paid profession) is sitting in an archive immersed with the photographs, drawings, and documents that are so many pieces of a story waiting to come to life. Archival research is an exercise in patience, diligence, and some chance. There is nothing like methodically combing through a folder you requested, only to accidentally happen upon another folder in the same box that reveals a yet-unrealized connection between buildings or architects. Or casually discussing your research with an archivist only to have them ask “have you checked this collection/file?”—you haven’t, but now you will and a whole new avenue of research is opened. These are joys that feel distant in the current moment when places like UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives have been (rightfully) closed to the public for months due to COVID-19.
However, just a few weeks ago, Waverly Lowell, the former curator of EDA, emailed Docomomo US/Northern California with a trove of suggestions after seeing that we had just launched an online map of 1970s sites and were preparing a virtual tour—it was the virtual equivalent of “have you checked this collection?” Even having seen several of these projects highlighted in the “The Legacy of Donald Olsen: Modern Master” exhibition in the Environmental Design Library in February, prior to shelter-in-place orders (February 2020 feels like years ago), I had forgotten to return to this source! As a result of the suggestion, we’re adding several incredible 1970s designs by Donald Olsen to our map—representing a lesser-known and celebrated period in his career—including a house for Peter Selz, the curator of Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive when it moved into the Brutalist Mario Ciampi-designed building on Durant Avenue, which playfully projects over the existing landscape and vegetation. The complex Loos-ian interior raumplan and stucco siding harken back to the International Style, while the shed roof and open interior spaces feel clearly of the Third Bay Tradition regional style.
Docomomo US is a non-profit organization that advocates for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and landscapes of the Modern Movement, and as the current president of the local Northern California chapter, I—like many of our members—got involved with the organization because of my love of International Style, Brutalist, and Mid-Century Modern design along the lines of the Olsen’s personal Berkeley residence (still a favorite), but dismissed much of 70s architecture. However, this year as the 1970s turns 50 years old, we have been exploring the 1970s with fresh eyes and finding all kinds of strange delights and new appreciation.
During the COVID-19 era, the extensive EDA digital collections have been a boon to architectural historians and organizations like Docomomo US, as we continue to work from home and host virtual events. In June, Docomomo US/NOCA hosted a virtual tour of Modernism in San Francisco’s Chinatown, during which we shared perspective renderings and early photos of the Ping Yuen Housing Complex designed by John Savage Bolles from the EDA collection.
We are now preparing for a virtual tour of 1970s sites across Northern California, highlighting buildings such as UC Santa Cruz’s Kresge College, which was designed by Charles Moore and William Turnbull of Sea Ranch fame. A delightful color pencil drawing from the Turnbull Collection captures the colorful spirit of the time, and the casual atmosphere of an Italian village-style design set in the redwood forest.
It has been a true pleasure to work with the folks at EDA, including current curator, Chris Marino, and research archivist, Katie Riddle, on these and other projects for work as well as personal projects. I was first introduced to EDA while beginning with my master’s thesis research on the Diamond Heights Redevelopment Area several years ago. I first visited the archive to dig through the extensive Oakland & Imada Collection as Claude Oakland had been the design architect for the tract of homes in Diamond Heights developed by Joseph Eichler. However, I quickly realized—thanks to my conversations with Chris—that Diamond Heights was represented across numerous other collections in the archive, including unrealized competition projects, custom-designed single-family homes, and landscape site plans.
In the DeMars Collection, I found photographs of a scale model of the Diamond Heights Master Plan by Vernon DeMars for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, illustrating the principals of siting, setback, zoning, street design, and use of multiple housing typologies that DeMars had clearly been researching in other examples based on the written records.
Photographs and floor plan diagrams from the Oakland & Imada Collection illustrate the ways that Oakland blended classic Eichler Homes features such as post and beam construction, entry courtyards and atria, simple materials, and open floor plans, with new approaches to siting and massing to address the unique conditions of Diamond Heights. Whereas typical Eichler tracts were mostly large, flat regraded sites for detached, low-slung single-family homes, the Diamond Heights tract features steep hilly topography and narrow lots. To address the site constraints and privacy concerns, Oakland designed several different models including multi-story attached rowhouses. The taller rowhouses sit above garages on the uphill side of the street with front balconies over-looking the stepped two-story homes across the street and into the semi-wilderness of Glen Canyon. Without the same amount of space for a traditional backyard, views, balconies, and small front courtyards, become essential to creating the quintessential Eichler indoor-outdoor living.
A favorite inadvertent discovery was a massive scroll with a color pencil drawing of a proposed multi-family project for Fairmount Hill in Diamond Heights by Charles Warren Callister which featured a distinctive roof shape that immediately called to mind the unusual eyebrow dormers on a built custom single-family home down the street by Callister. I was honored to be able to share these and other EDA archive discoveries in an in-person Gallery Talk back in February and in my 2017 The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture master’s thesis, “Modern Diamond Heights: Dwell-ification and the Challenges of Preserving Modernist, Redevelopment Resources in Diamond Heights, San Francisco.”
As many times as I’ve visited EDA for research on Diamond Heights, I know there is more to discover in the collection—things I’ve missed or things that will have new meaning when viewed in new circumstances, and because the collection is always growing! I was thrilled to hear in February that EDA had acquired the archival materials of B. Clyde Cohen, who’s firm Cohen & Levorsen won the Red Rock Hill Design Competition to build the cornerstone multi-family project in Diamond Heights and designed on of my personal favorite single-family homes in the neighborhood, and Modernist home with a hexagonal motif and organic Wrightian-influences. These newly acquired materials are something to look forward to at a time when the archives can be safely reopened to the public and are a reminder that new avenues of research await.
Hannah Lise Simonson is an Architectural Historian/Cultural Resources Planner at the firm Page & Turnbull. She received a Master of Science in Historic Preservation at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where she wrote her thesis on Diamond Heights. She currently serves as the President of the Northern California Chapter of Docomomo US, and gives walking tours of Diamond Heights as a member of the non-profit, Glen Parks Neighborhood History Project.
By Professor Andrew Shanken
As most Americans settled into the realization that the virus was real and we slowly found ourselves living on islands, archives, museums, and historical societies shut their doors and began to contemplate cultural distancing. On the one hand, unknowingly they had been preparing for this moment for years by digitizing holdings and creating increasingly dynamic virtual portals for a virtual public. On the other hand, the virtual archive or museum was most often understood rather like an avatar is to a human: a radically simplified representation of the real thing. The virtual collection is an amuse-bouche for the would-be visitor or researcher, or, more nobly, a partial democratization of access, but most historians insist on seeing the artifacts, and with good reason. Many original images are really three-dimensional. To a much greater extent their digital scans, they betray the process of their making and use through underpainting, notes, and sketches on the verso, and the evidence of handling, much of which is lost in digital renderings. For instance, for a book on the 1939 San Francisco world's fair, part of the E.D. Archives series, I found dozens of pinholes in some drawings by Bernard Maybeck, none in others. He had pinned them up repeatedly, either to discuss them or to rework them or both. He often used both sides and would jot down notes that became indispensable in dating them and creating a chronology of the development of his ideas.
The pandemic caught me at the tail end of another book, The Everyday Life of Memorials. Just as I needed to wrap up vital research questions and acquire images and permissions to use them, the institutions I rely on for my research were closing. Not only would I have to forego pinpricks, but basic access to images seemed unlikely. No matter, digitized collections and blessedly enlightened views of the public domain came to the rescue. The Louvre has hi-res images of innumerable paintings waiting for scholarly use. A gorgeous scan of Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Marat" was there for the taking. Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" came courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The British Museum offered up a scan of an engraving of 1753 for Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” an early Gothic Revival gem. The Library of Congress proved a treasure trove of public domain images. With some creative maneuvering and a little rewriting, I was able to use their online visual collections extensively. All of these images came without the need for permission requests and they were free. Each one felt like winning a lottery ticket.
But my quest for about a dozen other images ran aground. Simple questions that archivists can answer immediately lingered for weeks; many went unanswered because many archives were down for the count. With some reluctance, I sheepishly turned to the hive mind. This is not my proudest moment as a researcher. Like many people, I have grave misgivings about the way Facebook uses personal information and has interjected itself into politics. I have vacillated between absenting myself and using it to make sense of the turn of affairs since 2016. But a good researcher should leave no stone unturned, even one he wishes Mark Zuckerberg would crawl back under. My first shout into the mist on May 23: "Anyone have a high res image of the Defenders of the Russian Land Monument in Moscow? I need it for a publication and would be happy to give you photo credits. No chance I get to Moscow anytime soon...." An answer came immediately from an old acquaintance: look at Russian Google and try Памятник защитнику земли российской. Bingo. I found a public domain image immediately. I didn't even know that a Russian Google existed. But of course, it does!
It worked so well that I tried again on May 30: "Anyone live near McAllen, Texas, or have a friend who does? I'm trying to get photographs of a war memorial there, which includes this lovely specimen of GW," and I attached the best image I could find from the web. Again, instant success brought offers from friends of friends to take photographs for me. I'll be publishing this one by a 13-year old aspiring photographer.
My third attempt was apparently more obscure than Moscow or McAllen: "Apologies in advance for going too often to the Facebook well! Anyone have a friend in Warren, Ohio? I need eyes on the Every Woman Memorial in Women’s Park. It's a research question...Thx!" I didn't need a photograph this time, but rather a confirmation of an inscription: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Virginia Woolf wrote this resolute rejection of patriotism in 1938 in the context of the rise of Fascism, with World War II clearly on the horizon. This would have made the memorial a curious rejoinder to Warren’s male soldier memorials in an adjacent park. Alas, there are not six degrees of separation between me and anyone in Warren. That or Facebook's algorithm is conspiring against me.
The search for this and other images and information continues. With no clear end to the pandemic, I have some difficult decisions to make. Some images may be cut, text will be altered, the character of the book changed in numerous small ways. Paper trails have always run dry and archives have always had limitations. Technophiles sometimes say that eventually, everything will be available online. This attitude recalls Borges's lampoon of "a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point." This adventure in cultural distancing, for all of its triumphs, only strengthens my belief that poring over materials in archival collections is indispensable and will never be supplanted by the web.
Andy Shanken is an architectural and urban historian with an interest in how cultural constructions of memory shape the built environment (and vice versa). He is a Board Member in American Studies, Faculty Curator of the Environmental Design Archives, on the Faculty Advisory Committee at the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Global Urban Humanities. He has a joint appointment in American Studies.