Arts Listings

Books: A Guide to the Bay Area’s Buildings and Architecture

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday October 30, 2007

A long-awaited, much-needed, and up-to-date guide to the great and representative buildings and architectural history of the Bay Area debuts this month.  

An Architectural Guidebook to San Francisco and the Bay Area is authored by Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny, in conjunction with a dozen contributing authors and photographers.  

Cerny speaks in Berkeley this Thursday evening as part of a Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) lecture series.  

Her talk is entitled “Observations: The San Francisco Bay Area and Its Built Environment,” drawing on the stories told in the book and the experience of researching and writing it. Books will be available for sale, with a discount for BAHA members. The book, published by Gibbs-Smith, retails for $29.95. 

Locals will recognize Cerny’s name from her two editions of Berkeley Landmarks, the scores of articles she has authored about Berkeley buildings and history, and her decades of selfless service to the cause of historic preservation. She’s a Bay Area native, with deep family roots in the region. 

The architecture of the Bay Area ranges from 18th-century Spanish missions to modern airport terminals. Imported and homegrown architectural styles, natural disasters, human interventions from railroads to war to the silicon chip, and a unique regional geography and climate have combined to create a wonderful and complex mix of buildings, spaces, and places. 

The guide is organized geographically by county, with individual cities, districts, and structures profiled. The writers went into the field with notebook and camera as well as consulting an array of historical documents, surveys, and local experts.  

Each building is identified by year of construction and designer (where known), followed by a few sentences of history, context, and notable design features. Black and white photographs of many of the structures are included. 

Neighborhood patterns are profiled, and the entries provide useful hints for spotting structures that enrich the context, such as San Francisco buildings that may not be architecturally preeminent but survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and illustrate earlier patterns of design or development. 

If you have an omnivorous historical appetite, the brevity of the entries can sometimes be frustrating, but one appreciates the challenges of putting together a book like this. Essential basics can be included, but there’s not room for exhaustive histories or extremely detailed design descriptions.  

Architecturally, the most prominent local communities such as San Francisco and Berkeley have been well covered by previous guides (including two written by Cerny) and published architectural histories. However, many smaller or less visible Bay Area towns, cities, and neighborhoods have been overlooked. 

This book, with more than 500 pages of text and over 2,000 individual entries, rectifies the imbalance and provides a regional perspective, addressing not just the older city centers but the suburbs, and profiling their major edifices and representative structures from cattle ranching days to Gold Rush to dot-com boom. 

In the Bay Area, understanding a mid-century Eichler subdivision or a South Bay R & D office park is as important to an appreciation of regional history and development patterns as admiring the Palace of Fine Arts or a pristine row of Victorian beauties. This guide thoroughly surveys the spectrum of local history and architecture. 

Refreshingly, it avoids a failing of some other architectural guidebooks. That’s the tendency of authors, often architects or critics, to turn a guide into a showcase of their personal preferences. 

For example, some San Francisco guidebooks written in the streamlined ‘30s fairly dripped with scorn at those horrible, out-of-date, Victorian houses, while others from the 1960s tout the virtues of particular Modern era buildings that, from 21st-century hindsight, are pretty mundane.  

In contrast, Cerny and her co-authors appear to have come to this project not as cheerleaders for design from any particular era, but from backgrounds as community and architectural historians with a thoughtful appreciation of past and present. 

They brought a catholic sensibility to their writing and selection of projects, respectfully showing the whole panorama of Bay Area architectural history and urban development. 

Quite a number of recent/contemporary buildings are indeed appropriately included, but they are thoughtfully treated without genuflection at the ephemeral altars of the “starchitect.”  

For example, the brief write-up on the new De Young Museum building gives a fair and matter-of-fact overview of both its virtues and shortcomings. 

An Architectural Guidebook to San Francisco and the Bay Area is easy to use, the maps relate well to the descriptions, and the index is clear and (from my brief perusal) seems accurate.  

There’s also a chronological, illustrated, guide to regional architectural styles and trends.  

If you’re at all interested in the architecture and history of the Bay Area, this will be an indispensable reference to own. I may, in fact, get two copies; one for home, and one that stays in the car, so that on trips through the Bay Area, quick answers to “what building is that?” can finally be found. 





By Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny 

Gibbs-Smith, $29.95. 


Susan Cerny speaks at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the historic Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. Refreshments and book-signing follow across the street at Berkeley Architectural Heritage’s colonial revival mansion, the McCreary-Greer House. 

Tickets are $15. Call BAHA at 841-2242, or check the website for more details. 

Cerny’s lecture will be followed at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, by the third and final talk in a BAHA series featuring local authors and historical topics. 

Mark A. Wilson, author of the newly published Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty (Gibbs-Smith, 2007) speaks on “Julia Morgan: her Unique Place in American Architecture” at the Seldon Williams House (Julia Morgan, architect, 1928), in Berkeley's Claremont Court neighborhood. 

A reception and book-signing will follow. The talk provides an opportunity to visit one of Julia Morgan's most beautiful private homes. The cost is $25 per person. Reservations for the Wilson event may be made by sending a check, payable to BAHA, and a return envelope to: BAHA, P.O. Box 1137, Berkeley, CA 94701.