Bernard Maybeck, Sunset and Space


Sunset With Pacific Ocean As Seen From Our Mountain.

The architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed many memorable buildings here in San Francisco and in various parts of California, lived out his final years in the Oakland hills across the bay from us. From there he was in the habit of sitting at a window and gazing for hours at the Pacific Ocean, especially toward the hour of sunset, remarking once to his daughter: ‘Each day I go farther and farther out, and find it harder to come back.’ It’s true that there is something absorbing, even mesmerizing about the seemingly endless expanse of water and sky, though I have always found it to be rather forbidding, even chilling and dangerous to behold, especially at evening. But I suppose Maybeck was drawn to it because his life here was coming to a close and the vast elements and fading light suggested the mysterious infinity of whatever lay beyond. Maybe that’s why I myself shy away from too extended a contemplation.

At sunrise the ocean is barely visible, enshrouded in the slowly vanishing darkness of night and as yet untouched by the sun. Up through midday it can be quite lively and cheerful, like a shining dark blue pane of glass overhung by a pale enamel sheet of sky. White sails go scudding across it, or a freighter or passenger liner crawls the horizon, or frothy waves stretch from north to south as if breaking on invisible shoals, and I am happy to be aloft on our mountainside and not subject to the cold and violence of the distant watery depths. 

My parents were great enthusiasts for the salutary benefits, for both body and spirit, of the bracing winds and invigorating waters of the sea. So I have many happy memories of early family outings to various beaches along the California and Oregon coasts. We were always encouraged to swim, and indeed I did swim whenever I returned to the ocean, almost no matter what the season or temperature I encountered, until I was about thirty years old. At which point it finally began to dawn on me that the northern California waters are frigid year round, that all sorts of hazards abound to be stepped on, caught in, bit by, snatched away with–and I stopped those foolhardy plunges into the icy blue murk and began to content myself with viewing it all from the safety and relative comfort of the shore. When a beloved nephew, an experienced sailor, was drowned a few years ago when washed from the deck of his father’s boat more than thirty miles off the rugged promontory at Pt. Reyes, I realized it would take a lot to ever get me out there. I simply cannot imagine venturing out into such realms. They are now forever lost to me, a fearsome place of loss, of danger and of forces I am in no way able to understand.

Another Bernard Maybeck quote I like is this: ‘I have never been an architect. I just like one line better than the other.’ And I think that Maybeck’s fascination with interior, architectural space during the course of his long working career may not be at all unrelated to his absorption in the vaster spaces of earth and sky, of water and cloud, which drew him so powerfully into themselves in his final days. And that is really the main interest I have in a Maybeck plan: the shapes of spaces, how they relate to and flow into one another, how their purposes correspond to their forms, how they have the power to draw me in and hold me happily bound. Architectural space, for Maybeck, really does echo the natural world which surrounds it and in which it finds its own harmonious and happy home. Perhaps, in the end, he considered all these things not separate, but one. 



2 comments on “Bernard Maybeck, Sunset and Space

  1. I still love and miss the sea, having grown up minutes from it and now being farther away from it than I wish. (I used to swim in the waters off Vancouver Island – for no more than a minute or so at a time, because they’re 10 degrees Celsius or less). But it is understandable that the terrible loss of your nephew would change your feelings; I don’t relate by personal experience to your feelings about the sea, but if you lose someone in a particular way, anything associated with that will carry an imprint of it, I think.

    I have started reading Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban and it reminded me of this; it’s partly about being drawn to the sea although also frightened by it, and confronting loss of various kinds.

  2. leifhendrik says:

    Thanks for your interesting comments, and for your kind words about my nephew. Yes, it was horrific, six years ago now but fresh in our memories. I was always rather terrified by the sea, even in the days when I swam in it. But I also have loved the bracing winds at the coast and the way earth and water come together so abruptly–there is something very alive about it, a place where life happens, along with death. A place of conjunction as well as separation. My Norwegian great-uncles, I’m told, built their own boats in Nordland province and sailed them to Lofoten in winter for a little fishing in their spare time. I marvel at such hardiness, but do not aspire to it. The Raban book you mention intrigues me. I must look into it soon. The title is first rate.

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