We urbanists have all raged against Philip Johnson. Superficial! Irresponsible! Trendy! A career made out of jokes! I've said all those things many times, with voice raised and cocktail sloshing. And I don't take back a single epithet.
Today, on hearing of his death, I visited his most notorious contribution to San Francisco, 580 California St., the one so notorious that we really don't like to talk about it. You can see it from my office window:
The vast dark tower on the right is the Bank of America building. But peeking out behind it, above the white building in the foreground ... Why, is that a mansard roof? And what are those little white things along its edges?
Well, yes, it's a mansard roof, like you'd see on castles of the Louis XIV era, up there on top of an otherwise normal office building. And those white things? Well, you tell me (click to enlarge):
Jon King in the SF Chronicle calls them "faceless figures in togas," and adds "Johnson would privately hint they were the Board of Supervisors and the mayor." Well, they're not togas; they're floor length hooded robes. Their postures strike me as active, gesturing, perhaps even authoritative. And they are far too striking to be passed off as political sculpture, though I don't doubt that Johnson was the first to joke about them.
Am I the only person who was reminded of the grim reaper or the Ghost of Christmas Future? I saw these figures as angels of death even before they witnessed a horrific accident in 1986, when the crane working on an adjacent building collapsed into the street from a 25th-floor height, crushing several people in their cars. I thought at the time that only a culture as rationalistic as ours would fail to tell some story about the faceless but active figures who gazed impassively on the carnage. Any culture in touch with the foundational meanings of the human figure would have found a way to blame them, fear them, something.
But really now! The figires are just silly, aren't they? I mean, sheesh, it's a 17th Century roof for god's sake! It's a joke! Funny, see! Let's see a good smile here!
By all means. 580 California can be both hilarious and ominous, and it can do that without being subtle in the least. Was Johnson ever, ever accused of subtlety?