I have many favorite places in San Francisco, but one stands above all the rest, the San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill. The Art Institute, founded in 1871, is one of the oldest and more prestigious art schools in the country. Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Bruce Nauman, and Clyfford Still have taught there, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Errol Morris, and yes, Courtney Love, studied there.
The Art Institute moved to its current site in 1926. The original building was designed by the San Francisco firm Bakewell and Brown, the same firm that designed San Francisco’s City Hall, among other buildings. Its a masterful study in mediterranean romanticism, the tower, the courtyard, the breezy arcades, all delightfully overgrown with all manner of planting. In 1969 a modernist addition was completed, designed by Paffard Keatinge Clay. A raw, even brutal concrete counterpoint to the original building, its highlight is a stepped lecture hall set in a plaza, on top of which sits an outdoor ampitheater. The plaza surrounding the hall is an abstract composition in its own right, and offers stupendous views of the city and bay below. The spatial sequence one experiences in this building is extraordinary, first through the classical entry portal, then into the lush courtyard, a glance up at the tower, a detour into the Diego Rivera Hall to see his great mural, then, after being squeezed into a hallway between the old and new buildings, one is released in the addition’s plaza, and an extraordinary and little known vista point overlooking the bay. And like all good mediterranean complexes , the parting view of the building, the tower on the hill, embellishes the experience in our memory. Lucky enough to live around the corner from the building for a few years, my favorite image in my memory is that tower, seen at night, in the fog, a romantic beacon beckoning to the cacophony of ship’s horns below. Below, we walk through the building.