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November 09, 2006

Goodhue's Spanish Ornamentation

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Architectural ornamentation.

Should it be verboten, as Bauhaus and other International Style purists would have it? Or should inhibitions be cast away for us to wallow in it, Rococo-fashion?

Of course there's the vast middle-ground between these extremes, and that's where things get interesting. For example...

A must-see stop on my recent visit to San Diego was the Fine Arts Building-California Building (it's now called the Museum of Man) designed by Bertram Goodhue, located in Balboa Park.

He was supervising architect for the 1915-17 Panama-California Exposition, set in Balboa Park, and took that opportunity to do some designing in the Spanish or Spanish Colonial / Spanish Revival manner.

Goodhue (1869-1924) had a spotty formal education and suffered mood swings, yet managed to have a successful career (including 25 years in partnership with Ralph Adams Cram).

Above all, he was a master designer. That's my opinion, anyway, considering that he designed St. Bartholomew's Church on Manhattan's Park Avenue, the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Nebraska State Capitol, among other important buildings. And on the side he did publication and typography design.

The Fine Arts (as I'll call it here) building has interested me for many years and I find it odd that, even though I've only been in San Diego (briefly) a few times, I never took time to visit Balboa Park until now. Here are some photos I snapped.


Fine Arts 1.JPG
Facade view.

Fine Arts 2.JPG
Tower detail.

Fine Arts 3.JPG
View of east side.

The part of the Fine Arts that interests me most is the facade. Note how plain many of the surfaces are, yet where there's ornamentation, it is intensive.

I find this combination of extremes strangely appealing, though it's hard for me to explain why. Maybe that's the nature of aesthetics. It goes far beyond description and analysis, which is why I normally can't be bothered by books or even short articles that are attempts to analyze works of art; a few brief calls to attention normally are good enough.

Even so, let me hazard that, arrangement of elements aside, an important factor in Goodhue's design is the ratio of ornament to plain-surface. That too is a kind of balance the designer should strive for.



posted by Donald at November 9, 2006


The Museum of Man was one of the few permanent buildings built for the Panama Exposition of 1915. The California Tower is a landmark of the city, and the carillion is played on special occasions.

Can't remember the name of the original, but the tower is adapted from another bell tower in Spain. The California Tower is also considered one of the finest examples of the California Mission Style.

BTW, if you're ever visiting Balboa Park again be sure to check out the south side of the complex, across the plaza from the main building. And the western annex as well. The latter is not ordinarily open to the public, but you might get a special tour.

It was not designed as a single building, but as a complex, with the anchor being the Museum of Man. People tend to forget that and focus on a single part. One feature to check out in the south side is the replica of a Mission Era chapel. From time to time religious services are held there. Mostly on special occasions.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 10, 2006 8:07 AM

There's an almost edible quality to this building. And, no, I'm not going to try to explain that comment other than to cite: McArthur Park is melting in the rain, the sweet green icing flowing down...

Posted by: ricpic on November 10, 2006 10:20 AM

This building is a shoo-in to win the award for The Building That Most Resembles a Church Without Actually Being a Church :)
And yes, I like the design. It's a bit gaudy, but so what?

Posted by: Peter on November 10, 2006 11:07 AM

I think I see evidence of Byzantine architecture here. The church-that's-not-a-church looks very much like a basilica you might find in Constantinople. According to Kenneth Clark, these were some of the most perfect pieces of architecture ever built. So Goodhue was smart in taking his cue from this splendid culture.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 10, 2006 5:19 PM

BTW, if you think the outside is cool, check out the inside. :)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 12, 2006 12:52 AM

My first impression on the photos before reading the para after the "View of east side." was exactly your para :"...Note how plain many of the surfaces are, yet where there's ornamentation, it is intensive."

This can be a perfect approach to modern facade treatment.

Thanks Donald

look fr studio LDA

Posted by: look on November 15, 2006 10:24 AM

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