Modernist Pilgrimage to San Francisco

Whilst San Francisco is known for being design-oriented and architecturally characterful, it’s not a exactly a place resplendent with mid century/modernist places of interest. That said, the modernist sights that I did come across in between visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, the Painted Ladies and other decidedly un-modernist attractions were great and more than worth documenting for the purposes of this blog.

Marin County Civic Centre

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Without doubt one of the strangest buildings that I’ve ever visited, the Marin County Civic Center is situated about half an hour north of San Francisco and contains the area’s government administration offices, law courts and library. Its striking, other-worldly appearance means that it has been used as a filming location for many a sci-fi film, including 90s Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman vehicle Gattaca (one of my favourite films of all time, mostly due to its futuristic mid century aesthetic).

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The building was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last project before his death in 1959 and bears a number of his hallmarks: an earthy colour palette punctuated with garish pops of colour (that shade of blue and gold against the terracotta was certainly a choice), arches, domes, cut-outs and lots of rounded corners (inside, the rounded corridors make you feel like you’re walking around a continuous circular space).

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Slap bang in the middle of everything is a 52.4 meter gold anodised tower, separating the hall of justice and Administration wings together with what appears to be a circular plunge pool and mini waterfall. It’s definitely worth visiting in person: even on a murky, drizzly day I thought it was just magical.

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St Mary’s Cathedral

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St Mary’s Cathedral was conceived by Italian modernist architect Pietro Belluschi and consecrated in 1971. A little underwhelming and beige from the outside (though this may have just been the gloomy weather), it had an awe-inspiring, almost science fiction, space station-esque interior.

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Inside, stained glass windows and concrete, sculptural pillars ascended on four sides and converged at the apex of the concrete textured ceiling. Like St Mary’s Church of the Angels that I visited in Singapore, the space was dramatic yet entirely fit for purpose: the setting, views and scale gave the place a feeling of serenity.

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Alameda Point Antiques Fair

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Simply put, this was one of the largest and best flea markets I have ever visited (and I have visited a fair few over the years). Located across the Bay Bridge in Oakland at the derelict former Alameda Point Naval Air Station, this monthly market is apparently Northern California’s largest antiques and collectibles show.

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I was a bit concerned that it might be a bit too professional/expensive for my tastes (I read in advance that all items are supposed to be more than 30 years old with reproductions prohibited) but I was pleased to be greeted by endless stalls of the usual tat that I’m usually accustomed to finding at flea markets. There was plenty of fairly priced mid century furniture, including a covetable vintage eames shell on a black cat’s cradle base (which I would have bought if there would have been a way to transport it back to the UK) and various knickknacks (which I could and did buy).

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Heath Ceramics

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I hadn’t heard of Heath Ceramics before visiting San Francisco but the 66 year-old brand is apparently renowned for its signature mid-century-style pottery, commonly found on restaurant tabletops across California. Their recently opened factory/showroom/store, a former linen supply and laundry, in the trendy-but-still-a-bit-rough north-eastern section of the Mission District sells the brand’s wares and aspirational lifestyle associated with it very effectively: the bright and airy space houses ceramic sets arranged according to the year that they were designed, high-end yet homespun-looking textiles, a tightly curated selection of cookbooks, a wall of handmade wooden clocks by House Industries, colourful tiles and a Blue Bottle coffee lounge.

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It was obviously all hideously expensive – I could only justify buying a $20 tea towel – but I thought the trip was worthwhile, if only to see a masterclass in visual merchandising (skip the branch in the Ferry Building, it’s a small kiosk in comparison). The area surrounding the store in the Mission District appeared to be a bit of a creative hub with lots of other interesting independent workshops and stores scattered about.

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