John King on Watching a City Change Through its Buildings

November 9, 2011
The San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic takes a close look at the city's most notable buildings.

Buildings are arguably the most important ingredients of a city. But they alone don’t make a city what it is. History, context, and most importantly the changes brought by time are what shapes a city. Its buildings, though, reflect these changes.

That’s why buildings are a good way to track and understand the city as a whole, according to John King, the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. In his new book Cityscapes, King brings together a collection of 50 of his columns looking at individual buildings in the city. But these aren’t verbose or pompous architectural reviews. At just a little over 100 words each, they’re neat and concise summaries of these separate but linked elements of the city. He argues that the brevity of these mini-reviews makes writing them a challenge, but that it brings out their most important aspects.

“It really requires you to distill the wider impact of what you’re seeing down to its essence,” King says.

His book includes such notable San Francisco buildings as the Transamerica Pyramid, the San Francisco Federal Building and the Flatiron Building, but also somewhat less obvious choices, like City Lights Bookstore, the Glen Park BART Station and the Palace Parking Garage. It’s not the definitive list of the city’s best or most important, but what King calls “50 facets of our urban scene.”

And, as he emphasizes, the urban scale is ultimately the most appropriate focus.

“The question is ‘why are we looking at this building? What is it about this building fits into the larger city, or says something about the larger city?’” King says.