In recent years, San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King’s “Cityscapes” column has addressed San Francisco’s great and not so great buildings. King remains one of the few Chronicle writers whose opinions are regularly discussed, and is helped by writing in a manner that says he does not believe you are a fool if you disagree with him. Now King has written Cityscapes: San Francisco and its Buildings, a pocket sized book that profiles fifty San Francisco buildings covering major facets of city architecture. The book joins King’s commentary with beautiful photographs on high-quality paper, often taken from angles that evoke features easily missed from a sidewalk view. King avoids many of the usual suspects in profiles of San Francisco buildings, instead including under-publicized and likely little known buildings like the Lakeside Medical Center, 2501 Ocean. King’s work should trigger debate on the merits of his assessments, and remind those walking through city streets that there is much beauty to be found from looking up at the buildings they pass.

I do not always agree with John King’s architectural assessments, but always get the impression that he is more interested in provoking discussion then in securing assent to his views. His new book, Cityscapes, reflects this approach.

King is not claiming that the fifty buildings he writes about is a “definitive roster of San Francisco’s finest or most beloved works of architecture.” Rather, he picked buildings that he believes covers the “fifty facets of our urban scene,” leaving critics of his choices to demand a second volume.

Text and Architectural Details

Based on King’s choices, he clearly prefers buildings that include text and/or figurative architectural details. He loves the ceramic faces on 91 Central Street and 1660 Haight, the art moderne engraving on the Malloch Apartments, 1360 Montgomery, the painted iron griffins at 101 Embarcadero and the white cherubs on the recently constructed Jewish Museum, 763 Mission.

1098 Valencia seems to have been included because King liked its “Social Security Administration” lettering, with the same likely true for the Palace Garage at 125 Stevenson and the “E.M. O’Donnell Coppersmiths” painted lettering at 353 Folsom. King’s selections also include one of my own favorite buildings, the “Furniture and Carpets” landmark at 1019 Market Street.

King’s affection for buildings with lettering also applies to what may be my favorite photo in the book, the Harrigan Weidenmuller Building at 344 Kearny. The photo shows the historic lettering on the front of the building – Harrigan Weidenmuller Co. Realtors –but what makes it special is that above the sign on the wall of the adjacent building is great graffiti of a talking banana.

Modern Structures Included

Those familiar with King’s views know that he is generally pro-development and believes that cities are kept vital by creating new buildings. He loves Philip Johnson’s 101 California Street, and praises the utterly drab 353 Sacramento (which he unintentionally makes look even worse by juxtaposing it with an adjacent historic building). He accurately derides 450 Sansome as “a dull block of anywhere USA,” but somehow appreciates a similarly suburban-looking new parking garage at 450 South Street.

While disagreeing with him on the merits of some recent buildings, I appreciate that King does not simply praise historic structures and bash the new (something too many of us are often guilty of). And when I look at his photos of the Downtown Center Garage at 325 Mason (built in 1954) his assessment that it is “a relic of efficient beauty, if given half a chance,” convinces me.

It reminds me that after years of viewing the Central Towers Apartments at 350 Turk/455 Eddy (not in the book) as sticking out like a sore thumb on a stretch of otherwise exclusively historic buildings, I learned that it was designed by Joseph Eichler, the legendary modernist architect and developer. Now I see that modern (1965) building as a community asset, and a vital part of the city’s architectural history.

Appreciating Buildings

I think King’s goal in Cityscapes is less about persuading readers on the merits of particular structures than to get people to better appreciate the built landscape. I call this getting people to “look up,” as its so common for people to rush through San Francisco streets passing architectural gems with their heads down, oblivious to the surrounding beauty (add iphones and this obliviousness increases tenfold).

It’s customary when traveling abroad to spend time carefully viewing buildings, but King shows that Bay Area residents can also gain much from closer observation of local architecture. I think this explains the book’s high quality paper stock for the photos, which displays a level of building detail that would otherwise be missed.

The book’s size allows it to be easily carried around town, but is described as only a “part guidebook” because it only covers fifty buildings which are dispersed around the city. Production costs would likely be too high for neighborhood editions, but that would be a great project and would really get people to pay more attention to local buildings.

King’s book is an important addition to the city’s architectural literature, and is perfect for book clubs looking for works guaranteed to produce lively debate.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron, and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He led the drive to create the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District.