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John King on Watching a City Change Through its Buildings

The San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic examines the buildings that define his city

Courtesy John King

Buildings are arguably the most important ingredients of a city. But they alone don’t make a city what it is. History, context, and most importantly the changes brought by time are what shapes a city. Its buildings, though, reflect these changes.

That’s why buildings are a good way to track and understand the city as a whole, according to John King, the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. In his new book Cityscapes, King brings together a collection of 50 of his columns looking at individual buildings in the city. But these aren’t verbose or pompous architectural reviews. At just a little over 100 words each, they’re neat and concise summaries of these separate but linked elements of the city. He argues that the brevity of these mini-reviews makes writing them a challenge, but that it brings out their most important aspects.

“It really requires you to distill the wider impact of what you’re seeing down to its essence,” King says.

His book includes such notable San Francisco buildings as the Transamerica Pyramid, the San Francisco Federal Building and the Flatiron Building, but also somewhat less obvious choices, like City Lights Bookstore, the Glen Park BART Station and the Palace Parking Garage. It’s not the definitive list of the city’s best or most important, but what King calls “50 facets of our urban scene.”

And, as he emphasizes, the urban scale is ultimately the most appropriate focus.

“The question is ‘why are we looking at this building? What is it about this building fits into the larger city, or says something about the larger city?’” King says.

He wants his book and his ongoing weekly mini-column to boil down these ingredients of the city to identify their distinguishing characteristics. It could be that a building is the last rugged warehouse in a gentrifying neighborhood, or a classic that’s currently housing a nail salon. One project in the book, the Alexis Apartments senior housing complex, is maybe most notable for a new paintjob that simply but dramatically changed the character of the towers.

How these places contextually connect with the city, and how they are affected by their surroundings is to King more interesting than what style they’re built in or how high they rise. By exploring how places exist as parts of the city, King says he tries to make more of a natural connection between his readers and the city that surrounds them. With Cityscapes, King is hoping to appeal to and excite a general audience by focusing on how the city continually changes, and how the built environment reflects and responds to that change.

“I hope at least theoretically the book resonates beyond San Francisco,” King says. “A city changes and buildings both new and old respond to the dynamics of the age that we’re in. Some of those changes stick and some of those changes don’t, and the values that are sacred in one generation aren’t sacred in another.”

For King, this is the essence of the city, not any one icon or megaproject. To truly understand a city, he says, one must observe the small and large ways it changes.

“The one consistent thing is this eternal change,” King says, “and it changes in ways we can’t predict.”

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.