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R.I.P. Allan Temko


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Thank you, Mr. Temko, for teaching me how the adjective "execrable" can apply to architecture and urban design. A generation of Northern Californians learned how best to appreciate cities.

From SF Chron:

Allan Temko - architecture watchdog

Michael Taylor, John King, Chronicle Staff Writers

Thursday, January 26, 2006

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Allan Temko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Chronicle architecture critic who used his position to shape the Bay Area as profoundly as any developer, died Wednesday in Orinda. He was 81.

Mr. Temko, who had been in failing health, died of apparent congestive heart failure at the Orinda Convalescent Hospital.

The self-styled "activist critic" passed judgment with Olympian certainty on what was built and, most importantly, what was still up for grabs. In the process, his broadsides affected the design of everything from downtown shopping centers and office towers to bridges and BART stations.

"Without question he had more effect on people's interest in architecture and design in the Bay Area than anybody else," said Lawrence Halprin, the renowned landscape architect for such projects as Sea Ranch on the California coast. "We were very close, but in a funny way. I was always scared when he wrote about me."

Former Chronicle Executive Editor Matthew F. Wilson, who worked extensively with Mr. Temko, said, "Allan had a dramatic effect on the skyline of San Francisco and beyond. Architects, city planners and politicians took his criticism very seriously. Often when there was (an official) plan and he espoused a different approach, things got changed."

But even before he began a newspaper career that was capped by the 1990 Pulitzer Price for criticism, Mr. Temko led a storied life, which included a memorable appearance as Roland Major in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

Author of "Notre Dame of Paris," the definitive book on the famed cathedral, Mr. Temko was an unabashed intellectual known to bill himself within the newsroom as a "thoroughbred among a field of dray horses," a pronouncement he once made in the middle of said newsroom as the dray horses were furiously batting away on deadline.

"He laughed at himself even while he played the character," said Wilson, who now is executive editor of the Marin Independent Journal. "It was partly making fun of himself ... he recognized who he was and couldn't hide it."

But his writing aimed squarely at the casual reader, using vivid phrases that stuck to their targets for good.

It was Mr. Temko who first described San Francisco's 39-story Marriott Hotel as "the jukebox," and the Vaillancourt Fountain on the Embarcadero as resembling something "deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines."

As for Pier 39, Mr. Temko's 1978 review of the waterfront retail complex was so harsh it provoked an unsuccessful lawsuit from the architect. Consider the opening: "Corn. Kitsch. Schlock. Honky-tonk. Dreck. Schmaltz. Merde."

Younger architecture critics, including Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, hold up Mr. Temko as a model.

"What I loved about him was that he was a street fighter in a bow tie," said Kamin, who himself won the Pulitzer for criticism in 1999. "He was elegant and knowledgeable, but he didn't write for a small coterie. He fought for what he thought was important in a crazy hell-raising way."

Born in New York City in 1924, Mr. Temko grew up in Weehawken, N.J., and later enrolled at Columbia University in New York. During World War II, Mr. Temko was one of many young college students who joined the military -- he became a Navy officer and saw service in the Pacific.

After the war, he finished his studies at Columbia and then headed west. There was an extremely brief stint at The Chronicle in 1949 - it supposedly ended when the cub reporter was found at his desk in the newsroom reading Catullus in the original Latin. Next came graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where Temko met Elizabeth (Becky) Ostroff. They married in 1950, a union that would last until her death in 1996.

The Temkos moved to Paris a year later, where Mr. Temko taught at the Sorbonne and wrote his first book, "Notre Dame of Paris." It foreshadowed his knack for pushing beyond architectural details into the soul of a place: The aged cathedral "withstood the Nazis, who marched onto the parvis in 1940. It merely rose upward before them, a serene and massive lesson in history, unconquerable and silent."

On returning to the Bay Area in 1955, Mr. Temko taught journalism at UC Berkeley and wrote for such publications as Harper's.

Far more readers caught him in 1957's "On the Road," where Kerouac used him as the model for Roland Major -- first glimpsed "in his silk dressing gown composing his latest Hemingwayan short story -- a choleric, red-faced, pudgy hater of everything, who could turn on the warmest and most charming smile in the world when real life confronted him sweetly in the night."

Mr. Temko and Kerouac first met at Columbia, where Mr. Temko was one of the few friends that Kerouac's mother approved of.

Mr. Temko came into his own in 1961 when he rejoined The Chronicle as architecture critic. The former academic and would-be Hemingway embraced his new role.

"Suddenly the country was being ruined before our eyes, smashed, raped, poisoned, stunk up, and, not least, disfigured by inhumane and even hideous buildings," Mr. Temko wrote in 1993. "Northern California was the place to take a stand. It had much more to lose than Detroit or the Bronx."

The stand included opposition -- successful -- to early designs of the San Mateo Bridge and opposition -- unsuccessful -- to the "appalling crudities" of Embarcadero Center's slab-like concrete towers.

Nor were his tactics limited to signed articles; when Mr. Temko and Chronicle Editor Scott Newhall saw BART reneging on a pledge to put the Ashby Station underground in Berkeley, they teamed up with a lawyer who then found residents to file a lawsuit that the newspaper then covered.

"Sometimes, by today's ethical standards, we acted high-handedly," Mr. Temko wrote with a decided lack of remorse in a 2001 article for Metropolis magazine.

Restless, Mr. Temko left The Chronicle in 1970 to teach and write for magazines. But he found his way back a few years later with more passion than ever.

When a mall topped by an office tower was proposed for Market Street in the mid-1980s, Mr. Temko inveighed repeatedly against "a Beverly Hills developer's pastiche of what a civic monument should be." After numerous revisions, the Nordstrom-topped San Francisco Center opened in 1989 to Mr. Temko's relieved verdict: "glory be, whatever its flaws ... it is a victory for environmentalists who have fought to make this an acceptable project rather than a monstrous monument to greed and relentless bad taste."

Phrases like that don't pop out of thin air - and indeed, Mr. Temko's painstaking work habits often resembled writer's block more than what he described in the Metropolis article as "insouciance about deadlines."

But the proof was in the writing - and the official pinnacle of Mr. Temko's career came in 1990 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. As champagne spilled in the newsroom, Mr. Temko proclaimed with uncharacteristic humility, "This is really recognition for The Chronicle's readers. They have made this the most environmentally aware part of the United States."

Mr. Temko retired in 1993. But he wrote occasionally on such topics as the redesigned eastern span of the Bay Bridge, and he visited the newsroom frequently. He also served on the review panel to select the designer for a new cathedral for the Diocese of Oakland, a project that broke ground last year.

Mr. Temko is survived by a daughter, Susannah Temko of Berkeley; a son, Alexander Temko of Pittsburgh; a brother, Stanley Temko of Washington, D.C.; and two grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.

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