Americas, United States, The West and Southwest

Architectural fun in San Francisco

No Comments 21 February 2011

Architectural fun in San Francisco

Back in March 2003, the Monkey toured areas of California, in the United States. In this set of photos, he examines a few of San Francisco’s more exuberant buildings.

Ciy Hall, San Francisco, California, United States
The Monkey enjoys a bright sunny day (in California?!) in San Francisco’s Civic Center Square, the site of many protests (in fact, the blue tarp visible amongst the trees at right was set up by Muslims and Buddhists for a prayer for the people of Iraq during the U.S./U.K. attack on that country in 2003).

The massive neoclassical pile behind him is City Hall, finished in 1915 and designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. The building’s dome rises 92 meters above the street and is thus taller than the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.—evidence of the immense civic pride of San Francisco’s post-1906 administration. After damage in a 1989 earthquake, engineers recommended installing a “base isolation system” under the building. Consisting of steel and rubber discs beneath the structure’s foundation, the system should stabilize City Hall even in the event of a strong earthquake.

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California, United States
The Monkey pauses by the reflecting duck pond at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Conceived by architect Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, the building’s colonnade and rotunda were meant to resemble a fantasized Roman ruin that would provide the necessary sense of grandeur to visitors as they entered the exhibition hall to view precious works of art. Grand it certainly is: melancholic sculptures and intricate columns feature throughout, and the rotunda is colossal, soaring 34 meters up and enclosing a shady, eerily empty interior.

As part of a temporary exhibition, however, the structure was not built to last: it was made of what we could loosely call “burlap-mâché.” But as the citizens of San Francisco had become quite attached to the building, which also acts as a monumental gateway to one side of the Presidio Park, funds were raised to take casts of the structure and rebuild it in steel and concrete. This 1960s reconstruction is what you see today.

St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco, California, United States
Italian Pier Luigi Nervi, a pioneer of reinforced concrete architecture, designed the distinctive St. Mary’s Cathedral for San Francisco in 1971 (fire had destroyed old St. Mary’s in 1962). The ingenious design uses four symmetrical, hyperbolic paraboloids to put a modern spin on the centuries-old nave and transepts cross pattern prevalent in countless medieval European cathedrals (or across town at Grace Cathedral, below). Here, rather than the footprint of the building forming a cross, the intersection of the curving roof sections creates a massive, enveloping cross that hovers over the open space below, up to 60 meters over the heads of the congregation. Stained glass highlights the cross, and the effect is impressive indeed. The Monkey was pleased with his chance to see this daring building, and posed for a photo outside.

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, United States
Compared to St. Mary’s, Grace Cathedral fits the stereotype of what a cathedral “should” look like. That’s because the church, atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, is a virtual replica of Notre Dame de Paris, down to the decorative spire above the intersection of the nave and transepts. But the Monkey noted that Grace Cathedral, built from 1910 onward and the third largest cathedral in the United States, lacks its inspiration’s flying buttresses. That’s because they were unnecessary, as the church was built with steel-reinforced concrete due to the persistent threat of earthquakes in California.

Inside, among other exhibits, you can see part of the Names Project’s AIDS Quilt, which has been an ongoing memorial since the 1980s saw the rapid rise of the disease. Each section of the quilt is the size of a grave plot and memorializes a victim of the disease through symbols proposed by the victim’s loved ones.

National Maritime Museum, San Francisco, California, United States
The Monkey enjoys a break from hill-walking by the National Maritime Museum, an intriguing little structure dating from 1939 and intentionally built to resemble the receding lines of an ocean liner. The crescent-shaped waterfront has stands for the Aquatic Park Casino, a water-oriented “stage” laid out by the Works Project Administration during the 1930s Depression.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1659 times since the 2010 website relaunch.

United States


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303,824,640 (2008)

Land area:

9,161,923 sq. km.


Washington, DC (pop: 606,900; 2005)


In 2006, the United States ranked 10th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 1st in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $44,155.00. Public debt accounts for 60.8 percent of total GDP, while 12 percent of U.S. nationals are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):

English, Spanish

Monkey's name:

The Monkey, El Mono

Fun fact:

The United States was a pioneer in representative government, though representation has always been limited. At first, only landowning white males could vote. Black males received the vote in 1870, while women of all races had to wait until 1920 for the vote. Even today, the Democratic Party (born circa 1800) and the Republican Party (born circa 1855) exercise a de facto stranglehold on all political institutions—a situation unchanged in over 150 years.

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