The fair at the end of the beaux-arts period opened, even as modernism with its fielty to the machine was celebrated with the opening of the Panama Canal—often attempted but only realized by the triumph of the machine—was the last gasp of Romanticism. As any age hoists up its flag, the winds blow in from another time. We were all tired out from our slavery to the mechanical paradise of Futurismo as now we are well inside the paradise of Datismo…Karlheinz Rauchenwelle
The air is clear, glittering on a dry morning after a restorative rain shower. The dust and smog of arid late fall washed away. Winding down the grey snake of Highway 101, pouring out of the top-of-the-hill Waldo Tunnel into the sudden view of the San Francisco Bay, the bridge, the city, the other bridge, I am lifted. You bet people’d pay big money to see this view. It’s my gateway four days a week into the sizzle of city life. If the fog is in, as it is many mornings, holes in the grey blanket will show as watery rafts, islands of light like shuffleboard pucks pushed by sticks of parallel sunrays, sliding across the rumpled slate of water. But today the cityscape is sharp-edged; a blue-tinted cubist pile beautifully composed with Coit Tower, the Pyramid and the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Dark orange towers and loops of the Golden Gate Bridge show as the tunnel opens its arched gate to a new day and the stunning view of the City. In the distance, the white bridge tower of the new Bay Bridge span, recently unveiled, lets you know this is 2013. Chet Baker, who is on frequent rotation in my mind’s play-list is opiate-smooth crooning out, “This isn’t sometimes…this is always (click to listen)This isn’t just midsummer madness, a passing glow of gladness…this is love” Chet was a maximal artist in a minimalist mode of “less is more…”
A bayside parkway, just being constructed, is opening up this part of the city, opening to the water, to the wide view, replacing the dangerously decrepit, view-blocking Doyle Drive. Before this renovation, in slow traffic, you couldn’t help but notice the spalling concrete showing the bones of 1933 re-bar. And who doesn’t know someone who was involved in some drastic life-ruining Doyle Drive mash-up, I know I do. I swing past all the saurian monsters gobbling, drilling, shoving to make a new world in this part of the city. When they knocked down the old concrete stanchions, they did it all at once, shove, bam, bam, bam. and they were down. Saw the aftermath, massive monoliths laid out like a tumbled row of dominos. Wish I’d seen it happen.
The road divides and I swing onto Richardson Avenue curving around the restored relic of the Palace of Fine Arts — a remnant of the 1915 Pan Pacific World’s Fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. It’s a souvenir of another age before art and the whole world had fully adopted modernism, before WWI made references to the classical world laughable and musty like your ancient aunt’s collection of chachki bric-a-brac, from her last “grand tour.” The six lanes are divided by a median and a tire-high temporary wall on either shoulder keeping the traffic contained during the construction—almost always.
This morning, in the molasses upriver crawl going into the city I see, in the swift downriver flow on the opposite side, a 3-ton red SUV climb up the restraining wall— jump up on it, like a bull in full rut. I mean it sat there in a cloud of ruined concrete dust screeched into a halt, the driver looking down at his cell phone like a spurned lover. “It was the phone that done me wrong officer.” The driver, a guy in a sky blue shirt with a snow-white collar, yellow tie, had hit the front taper of the wall and the SUV, like a skier flying up a mogul lifted and came to rest all four wheels still spinning, rocking in a precarious balance. Stunned for a moment, like a sleeper at 3 AM wrenched awake by a jangling phone call, I need to pull over.
What I had seen had opened the gates of memory, a can-opener for the psyche when something so vivid, becomes a flash of lightning giving form to a dark landscape on a midwestern midnight. The crashed and trussed-up driver is sitting in a stop action of crushed hubris while the rest of us choke it down to the crawl of the rubber-necker brigade. My fellow commuters in the morning throng got orchestra seating. My thoughts are bustling—a crowd elbowing for the exits after a stupendous performance, ready to give the report at the after-concert bar.
I need to pull over. I do pull off my commute route and into the park where the Palace of Fine Arts sits to take a moment in the calm island of retro kitsch, a pond and a preposterous—what? Roman ruin? Greek temple? happy Disney play park? A fancy solemnity of the past memorializing another age in a Triumphal rah-rah of lit up electricity, human flight, and the machinery of will opening two great oceans to one another. Two great oceans of history were overlapping as well in the fascination of the antiquity of the Beaux Arts age about to be overwhelmed by the machine age.
The Palace is a restored remnant of the 1915 World’s Fair Xanadu celebrating the post-earthquake resurgence of San Francisco as the progressive will of the people leaned into all the pleasures of the world, food, sex, art, gravity-defying rides, planetary cultural exchange exoticism. A World’s Fair. San Francisco was all of Teddy Roosevelt’s monumental teeth beaming out a welcome mat of enthusiasm just as the explosion of the Great War rose out of the blackness on the other side of the world. A shadow cast into the havoc the century to come. The gates of a new age were flung wide to welcome the triumph of the machine, air shows, speed boats, balloons with gondolas slung underneath for a view from the air.
As I unwind my thoughts, I’m flooded with thoughts of moments when gates opened for me, moments of breakthrough. Pulled over at the at the curb, in the park made for this relic of another age, a bench posed on the lawn before the lagoon is my harbor for ordering the thronging thoughts wanting to make sense of the cinematic crash/spectacle. I’m obsessively hitting repeat, on the instant-replay of my mind. I mean the flypaper image of the errant driver of his shiny pride looking down at his tiny cell screen, as if that little pool of light, of “just been” could in any way rewrite that scene into “not my fault.”
On this weekday morning, I’m pretty much alone; the commuters are trundling on their way to work, the tourists are snugged in at breakfast. No busses yet at this top-10-must-see-in-SF. Under the dome high and grand architecture, no windows, no walls, only soaring fluted columns. It covers nothing but space has no utility save as a balm to the mind and it’s helping me wrangle the tangle of too-much-at-once into some bit of coherence.
Looming over the whole drama is the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, that incongruous restored relic of Worlds Fair romance circa 1915 framed by a row of Eucalyptus trees. High on the rotunda is one of the three bas-relief, Greco-Roman friezes repeating as mnemonics to point to the importence of beauty decorating the Palace. The dominating decoration is the weeping women, heads buried in their arms as they weep into what were supposed be planter boxes for great trees watered by tears. Weeping because a life without art is a mournful prospect. The trees were never planted, so when I visited the gardens with my kids, we always said the weeping women were actually hiding their eyes in a game of hide and seek.
Central in the tableau a bare-breasted tootsie her arms folded helplessly above her head is there to remind you of the (wink, wink) higher values. A pair of Centaurs is on the attack wrestling and boxing with some young muscled guys. I’ve driven past the Palace 1000 times and never taken more than a happy regard of the classical potpourri catching the light so sublimely. It’s working its magic — something I know about from years in the studio spent on the task of allowing the mind its sway. I was having a moment, familiar, sought after, but none the less rare. Everything glowed even if there was way too much of it beaming in from the far star of eternity. Really? “The Centaurs of Materialism Attacking Beauty defended by Youthful Idealism.” ??? A message from a very different time.
I’m basking in the rush of thoughts here in this gateway-garden free of Dada jokes and sardonic urban irony—those Berlin Walls protecting academic cloisters from a public hungry for meaning. This whole morning is presenting itself as a Gateway.
Yes, the car wreck as a gateway. Just a banging yelp of metal crushed and a cloud of dust. Yes, violence replayed in the mind becomes the slo-mo trope of a gateway. With my little device, I do a quick web search on the Palace of Fine Arts and its place in the Pan-Pacific Exposition. Maybeck had built the park and its colonnaded dome as a gateway, a place for just the kind of reflection I’m doing. Huh…look at this… Maybeck called it a gateway to prepare the mind for seeing art. Huh, whata ya know?… During the Exposition, behind the gateway, in the exhibit hall, were 11,000 works of art housed and safe from the war.
And what a place to reflect but a park Bernhard Maybeck had designed. The Palace—a pastiche of classical referents: fluted Corinthian columns, sculptures of muses and heroes all set about a reflecting pool lined with willows, eucalyptus, and blossoming plums. He meant the structure to be not a thing itself, but as a gateway to calm and shape the mind before seeing the great art in the exhibit hall stretching in a semi-circle behind the Palace. As it is, it’s the number one site in San Francisco for the wedding party photo. A gateway for couples entering a new life. Foamy brides and lollipop maids in a row and the usually sullen, black-suited grooms lined up against the rosy and buff building, doubled in the calm water of the reflecting pool—stately swans slicing open the mirror.
I posted myself under the dome to watch a bride and her groom playing hide and seek with a photographer who is goading them to relax and play with the singular eccentric space. He’s getting them to crouch while he looms over, then he crouches and shoots the up angle. They’re, self-conscious in their wedding wear, at once a conjunction of the austere black and ephemeral white mist. Then, I watch them relax and giggle at the cameraman. Sweet. They might just make it.
I’m thinking of my drive, from the top of the hill coming out of the Waldo Tunnel, sliding down the hill to the Golden Gate Bridge to the view of the shimmering San Francisco skyline. Standing out among all the foursquare piles of city buildings, a shining hemispheric gleaming its face to the sky is this dome of the palace.
When I taught art, drawing and design and watercolor painting, in the 70’s and 80’s we’d do a section on memory drawing. We’d make field trips into the city a couple of times a semester to galleries, museums and I’d have the class make mental notes of what they saw when they emerged from the frame of the tunnel. I’d have my students make a mental picture of the view just emerging from the tunnel and when class-time came again I’d say, “Now frame the drawing with the arc of the tunnel and draw everything you remember.” I’d say, “Whether you’re looking at a model right in front of you or drawing that quick glimpse of the city, all drawing is memory. Everyone in class, I mean everyone put in the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts after they drew the Golden Gate Bridge and maybe Coit Tower.
I first saw the Palace in 1958 in a June dusk—a dangerous wreck—a fenced-in ruin—dark and sulking under a lowering San Francisco fog. “An eyesore” my Aunt Thelma called it. “It’s being torn down.” She was showing off her city and we were bumpkins visiting from small-town Illinois, getting the “tour” in her spanking new grey Buick Roadmaster, roaring up and down impossible hills, hills so steep you needed a stairway to get up. Thelma was a great San Francisco booster, a wartime bride and glad to be shut of “back east” Illinois. Flamboyant, the life of the party. She’d landed just right, a “character”, my Auntie Mame— ecumenical in her collection of people to know—doormen, shopkeepers, Maitre d’s, politicians, parking lot jockeys—all had a big smile for Thelma. We were led into Chinese back alley antique dealers, eating fresh Cannoli sitting with the baker, the head buyer for the famous Gump’s. gave us a tour of his backroom store-house. We ate real Sukiyaki served by a Geisha in kimono. San Francisco was Oz. “No we can’t go in that ugly so-called Palace.”
It was an embarrassment to her. It was like a carcass where the bones were showing through. But it was like nothing I’d ever seen, columns around a dome, sculptures tilting into a wild jungley lagoon. I was 10 in 1958 and the image of it was a lariat catching my imagination. It had been made of the favorite building stuff of World’s Fairs called staff—lath and burlap and carved plaster, easy to shape and easy to deconstruct after the fair, now, 40 years after the fair it was falling apart, a melting mountain of provisional glamour.
Maybeck said every city needs a ruin and he built it to be a mock Roman ruin for the fair, but by mid-century it had become a real ruin, a public danger,—no faux romance. The fight over what to do with it ended in a complete reconstruction in the early 60’s of lasting material, of concrete casts made from the original, and in its current state a shinning node of San Francisco civic pride. It stands for me at once ancient and well loved. High in the top 10 list of places not to miss.
Easing from the calm lagoon and park onto Lombard to get to work, my print studio/gallery, it’s a straight shot of “Welcome to San Francisco”—low tier motels. billboards and grease and gluten joints, I’m slowed by traffic lights and….I’m back in the revery of seeing that wreck. What was it I just saw?? The wild abandon, the savagery… all in a blink. A moment of brutality as the balloon of pride is popped. The classical mythic tenor of the Palace lingers—the wreck makes me think of a minotaur in rut, of a Picasso bull, a red Zeus, the barrier wall his white Europa. As I slow back into the drive-time reverie, the classical mythic cast of the palace spreads. I think of the time when I actually saw a bull do the deed. A great rust colored Bull snorting and mounting a cow. I mean you could see cartoon smoke rings shooting out of his nostrils. And what did I know about the driver of the SUV—nothing, save he played the fool for me and the fool in so many cultures is the guardian of the gateway—you must put up with his tricks to be let into the temple—no matter how accomplished, how knowledgeable, in the face of the large mysteries, you know nothing. The fool is here to remind you of that cosmic joke. Glad, too, no one was hurt.