Public Comment

Allan Temko: Reflections on a Long Friendship, By: John Kenyon

Friday March 17, 2006

Mid morning on January 26th I was just about to call Allan’s house to see how he was doing, when my phone rang. It was Susan calling from work to tell me she’d just read the announcement of his death. It felt very strange. An important part of my life had suddenly become the past.  

Fellow “scribblers” and lovers of architecture, Allan Temko and I had known each other since the late 1950s, in what had seemed a rather unequal friendship. I was a discontented designer-draftsman, while he, three years older and teaching Journalism at Cal, had already lived in Paris, taught at the Sorbonne, and written a well-received book on Notre Dame. Inevitably, he had become the mentor. I recall phoning him from a booth on Telegraph. “You need a grant,” he said. “Come and see me and I’ll tell you the ones to try for and how to get them.” 

But we didn’t meet again until 1962 when I was teaching architecture at the University of Oregon, and was able to invite him up to give a talk. He was in his post-New-Deal “socialist” mode, and delivered a passionate presentation on Skidmore Owings’ giant apartment blocks in all-black South Chicago that went over like a lead balloon in woodsy problem-free Eugene. Later, in the customary social evening, he upset the Louis Kahn contingent by dismissing their hero as a misguided eccentric. “Poor old Lou!” he kept muttering, not giving an inch. 

Allan’s years at the Chronicle suited him well. Never unnerved by celebrity of big egos, he was on intimate terms with almost all the significant names in architecture, planning, local politics and art, championing some and castigating others, famous or otherwise. The downside to being San Francisco’s one-man architecture critic was the scarcity—in a city loved mostly for its dramatic setting—of new world-class buildings to write about until the high-rise office boom of the Sixties and Seventies, when, despite some distinguished towers, huge corporate invaders overwhelmed the beloved topography. 

Yet, through it all, Allan seldom sounded depressed. He relished attacking the spectacularly bad Transamerica with its dunce’s cap spire, to the huge “jukebox” of the Marriott, then waxing poetic over the truly radical Oakland Museum. The sheer breadth of his interests made him invaluable. As a historian, he delighted in Temple Emanu-El’s restoration. As a student of urban design, he described a new vision for Berkeley’s harsh waterfront, and with his boyish eye for bold engineering, drew attention to the Port of Oakland’s monumental cranes. And almost always, besides being technically well-researched, his essays were pugnacious, witty, and amusing enough to entertain even the architecturally indifferent. 

Following the Eugene visit, I didn’t see Allan again for some years. After all, he was the famous fire-eating critic, while I was just an obscure City of Oakland planner. No matter that I did an occasional commentary on KPFA, was getting published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and exhibiting drawings in the Art Co-op, HE was the one with “literary tenure!” 

Yet somewhere along the way a significant breakthrough had occurred, when I spotted him “en famille” in a local restaurant reciting a Yeats poem from memory—“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” 

I know that I shall meet my fate 

Somewhere among the clouds above; 

Those that I fight I do not hate, 

Those that I guard I do not love . . . 

and so on through the sixteen lines. Impressed and delighted, I walked over to their table and announced that “anyone who can recite Yeats to his family can’t be all bad!” That brief discovery of something mutually loved broke the competitive ice, which could, looking back, have turned into a glacier by the next episode. 

In 1972, irritated by Allan Jacobs’ Urban Design document issued by the San Francisco Planning Department, I wrote a sarcastic critique, and on the advice of a perceptive friend, sent it to Alfred Frankenstein, the Chronicle’s revered art critic. Much to my surprise, he ran it in his column for two consecutive Sundays, then invited me to lunch. Sitting at his usual table in his usual dark-panelled lair, he told me how much he had liked my writing, and asked if I would be interested in submitting articles on a regular basis. Did he mean as an “outside” contributor? “No,” he said, “I’d like you to join the paper full time.” Taken aback, I told him I’d consider it, while he said he would have to run it past the editorial board, and would let me know as soon as possible. A month later he phoned to tell me that they’d turned his proposal down flat. Apparently, they refused to battle with another big ego, and believed that any other architecture critic would be as bad! The villain of course was Temko, who had left the paper, for whatever reason, in 1970. In effect, I’d have been taking his job. 

Looking back 34 years, I’m glad now that I didn’t have to decide. In Richmond’s pared-down Redevelopment Agency, my position in charge of graphics, architectural visualizations, and Marina design, had grown more fulfilling, while leaving me private time to pursue my painting and unpressured writing. As a featured newspaper critic, holding forth on every major development, I’d have had to relegate my artwork to “Sunday painting.” Besides, I think now, re-reading Allan’s collected essays, No Way to Build a Ballpark, that in both personality and writing style, he was the more suited to the role of “king critic.” 

An unexpected reward from my accidental loyalty came in 1978, when Allan, now back in the Chronicle saddle, asked me to drive him around the great Kaiser Shipyard site that was destined to become Richmond’s new marina, then visit the design consultants in San Francisco. Shepherding him around MY project was enjoyable enough, but the real thrill came when his article “A Bold Vision on Richmond’s Shore” appeared some days later, with not one, but two references to me, “the Redevelopment Agency’s British-born planner and architect.” The second was positively embarrassing: “In the end,” he wrote, “success may hinge, in ways few people except planner John Kenyon have appreciated, on the beauty of the new container port and the enduring power of the earlier industrial monuments in the vicinity.” Deprived of even a mention, my boss was hopping mad, but it was worth it! 

Through the ’80s, Allan and I didn’t see much of each other. Forced into “early retirement” by the City’s financial straits, I was busy catching up on my painting, and writing an occasional article for the old East Bay Express. Fully preoccupied, he was busy working toward his 1990 Pulitzer Prize. Unable to take on other assignments, he very kindly passed one on to me, suggesting my name to a French government educational journal seeking an illustrated piece on San Francisco. I took the photographs and wrote it, and became for a time a regular contributor. It was another helpful boost. 

During that busy period, Allan’s wife Elizabeth, known to her many friends as Becky, became our indispensable go-between. For health reasons, she walked everywhere, so our shopping paths crossed on Hopkins or Solano almost every week. She’d tell me about Allan’s latest article, say nice things about mine, and report on their last or next trip. Nobody has final insight into anybody else’s marriage, but theirs, lasting 46 years, seemed to me very successful. She too was very design-conscious, but mainly in the realm of big scale environmental improvements and the methods of achieving them. Becky was a social worker, schoolteacher, peace activist and more, but is perhaps best remembered for her work on the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission, where she played an important part in creating the city’s splendid waterfront park. A memorial grove is dedicated to her there, on the edge of the meadow. 

Her death from cancer in 1996 was a major blow for Allan, which he dealt with, typically, by sardonic humor. He seemed to relish telling me how they had celebrated her last hour with a bottle of champagne, during which he’d asked her, “Have I been a good husband?” Her nonchalant response, “You were OK” seemed perfectly designed for his self-deprecating style. But he wasn’t always so stoical. On a later occasion, while walking together around her waterfront park, he told me straightforwardly, “Becky loved you.” I took it as a very moving compliment. 

After Allan’s retirement from the Chronicle in 1993, our friendship became deeper, more fun, and certainly less competitive. He’d already achieved a Pulitzer Prize and national fame, but was missing the big city and the Chronicle office companionship. He was also “fed up” with the current architecture scene, and the turn it had taken into showy eclectic “Post Modernism,” including his longtime heroes S.O.M. Yet low spirits were not in his nature, and he found new heroes in Frank Gehry, and—especially—the Spanish architect, engineer, sculptor Santiago Calatrava, whom he later tried hard to “sell” to the Diocese of Oakland as the architect for the new Catholic Cathedral. Sad to say, he failed, but did succeed in getting them to site the future edifice on Harrison, overlooking Lake Merritt. For months I was treated to a running commentary on which “world class” architect was currently favored, or was too busy to come 6,000 miles for an interview. It was all very fascinating, but didn’t rival his comment that as the only Jew on a panel of Catholic priests, he would have guaranteed entrance to Heaven! 

Another vivid memory is of Allan’s impressive but always amusing name-dropping. I once mentioned James Stirling, one of Britain’s most celebrated designers, immediately eliciting an “award-winning” description of having been given a ride from Edinburgh to London in “Big Jim’s” huge dark green open car, hurtling along at 90 mph while passing the whisky-bottle back and forth. And, of course, when he or they traveled, they somehow did it right. Visiting Falling Water, Wright’s most famous house, they were allowed to spend the night! In Spain, he always stayed with Calatrava! Yet to me, Allan’s showing-off had a childlike quality that made it very forgivable. I remember an outdoor lunch behind their little house on Fresno Avenue, and the delight he took, wearing his collar-less Thomas Jefferson shirt, in showing off Becky’s silver and white garden, inspired by the famous one at Sissinghurst in Kent. 

During the long years when I craved even a little bit of the public fame Allan seemed to enjoy, we were too locked into unexpressed rivalry to be real companions. When supportive friends would suggest that I was now the Allan Temko of the East Bay, I’d refer them to a future time when he would be called “the John Kenyon of San Francisco.” All very amusing, but ultimately fatuous, for it seems to me now, as the surviving friend, futile to envy anyone, especially somebody close. We all have our struggles and disappointments, and one of Allan’s biggest ones was not being offered the Directorship of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a job I’d never remotely desire! 

This morning, after winding up my brief memoir, I listened to Garrison Keillor reading another short, powerful Yeats poem: 

How can I, that girl standing there, 

My attention fix  

On Roman or on Russian 

Or on Spanish politics? 

and so on to the poignant last lines— 

But O that I were young again 

And held her in my arms! 

Short, “journalistic,” and free from Yeats’ Celtic mysticism, I’ll bet that was another of Allan’s favorites, but I’ll probably never find out. We should have talked more about poetry, and a little less about architecture..