Inspired by Precedent

Daniella Thompson

Chapel of the Cross, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

4 October 2006

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the only architect worth his salt is the individualist who tosses all historic precedents onto the trash heap. Published in 1943, the novel was a battle cry for the revolution of modernism, which was expected to take hold from then to eternity.

In retrospect, modernism, like all fashions and movements, enjoyed its time in the limelight, to be replaced by newer trends. In the process, it was revealed that even modern structures are not created in a vacuum.

Inspiration can proceed from natural or built environments, from the old or the new, from the familiar or the foreign. The following 20th-century structures demonstrate the diversity of precedents that influenced their design.

Chapel of the Cross, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley (1965)

Situated above Grizzly Peak Blvd. at 2770 Marin Avenue, the secluded nine-acre PLTS campus combines the lands of the former Dobbins and Nash estates, anchored by two Spanish Colonial Revival mansions built in the early 1930s. Overlooking expansive vistas to the east, north, and west, the hilltop site is surrounded by trees.

Le Corbusier’s N�tre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (photo: Jeffery Howe)

Into this context, architect James Leefe inserted a chapel modeled on another hilltop chapel, Le Corbusier’s famed N�tre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, built in 1955.

Only ten years separate the model from the progeny, a testament to the profound shockwaves Corbusier’s chapel—a monument dedicated to nature and signaling a break with cubist modernism—unleashed on architecture worldwide. (See a slide show.)

As in Ronchamp, the walls are curved, giving the appearance of thicknesss and surmounted by a monumental hollow concrete roof. Illumination is provided via slits below the roof. But here the resemblance ends. The Chapel of the Cross is an urban adaptation that lacks the earth-grown appearance of the original.

The chapel is entered on the northeast side.

The rear (north) elevation faces the campus. (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Also lacking is advantageous siting. The chapel stands at the lower, southwestern end of the seminary campus, where it is surrounded by the back yards of neighboring houses. The building turns its back on the campus, and all its access doors are located toward the rear, theoretically enabling worshippers to walk directly from campus into chapel.

Souththeast fa�ade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The downside of this arrangement is multifold. The prow of the chapel is invisible from the campus. With invisibility comes neglect, so the only landscaping at the southern end consists of a dead lawn. This is also the area assigned for visitor parking, which stamps it as dead space.

6356 Broadway Terrace, Oakland (1993)

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006


This playful house replaced a 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival residence that had burned in the 1991 hills fire. In a neighborhood chock-a-block with insurance-fuelled Hatter’s Castles and mini McMansions, the 1,400 square-foot building is both a refreshing exercise in modesty of scale and a rare statement of creativity.

For a difficult site, both hilly and narrow, Ace Architects took as their model Bernard Maybeck’s innovative portable masterpiece, Hearst Hall (erected in 1899, burned in 1922), whose vast central Gothic arch utilized laminated wood. Two false towers sporting exterior struts flanked the arched fa�ade.

Hearst Hall on a Mitchell postcard

The Broadway Terrace house echoes Maybeck’s arched hall in an asymmetric arrangement utilizing a single tower (when it was being built, the neighbors referred to the house as “that church with a privy”).

The arched mass is faced with copper-clad asphalt shingles, which impart a vague maritime effect harking back to Norse seafaring sagas. Arching struts descend from the tower roof, a lighthearted reference to Maybeck’s struts, while dragon’s head beam-ends in the trellises are a direct quotation of Maybeck’s signature.

Sunol Water Temple (1910)

From the mid-19th century until 1930, supplying water to San Francisco was a monopoly held by the Spring Valley Water Company. Prior to the construction of the Hetch Hetchy pipeline, as much as 50% of the city’s water came from a 600-square-mile watershed in Alameda County, converging in Sunol before being directed to San Francisco through Niles Canyon.    

In 1908, a major share in the Spring Valley Water Co. was secured by William Bourn, Jr., owner of the Empire Mine and the foremost patron of architect Willis Polk. For Bourn, Polk designed in the 1890s a grand clinker-brick town house in Pacific Heights, as well as the Empire Mine’s “cottage” in Grass Valley. In 1915, he would design Filoli for Bourn.

Seeking to overturn Spring Valley Water’s reputation for rapaciousness, Bourn engaged in a public image campaign that included the building of an elegant water temple in Sunol. For the design, he turned to Polk.

“Wasserf�lle in Tivoli” (1745–1750) by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich

Polk’s inspiration came from a classic precedent: the ancient Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli. Like Sunol, Tivoli is a watery place, located at the end of the Aniene river valley, where the river forms a series of cascades through a gorge.

Built in the first century on a precipice overlooking the river, the Temple of Vesta—a graceful round pavilion surrounded by 18 Corinthian columns—is the subject of numerous old-master paintings, including several engravings by Piranesi. The composer Hector Berlioz, who visited Tivoli in 1831, described in his diary “the lovely little temple of Vesta, which looks rather like a temple of Love.”

Polk’s pavilion, 18 meters high, girdled by twelve concrete Corinthian columns, and crowned by a conical wood-and-tile roof, was a popular sightseeing and picnic destination for decades, until severe damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake led to its closure. Now restored, the temple, which is owned by the San Francisco Water District, is open for visitors from 9 a. to 3 pm Monday through Friday. See a virtual panorama of the Water Temple.

Members of the Tape family of Berkeley at the Sunol Water Temple, 1917 (photo courtesy of Jack Kim)

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 13 October 2006.


Copyright © 2006–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.