Modernism On Display: The Timken Museum of Art

In contrast to other Balboa Park buildings, that focused internally on their own exhibits, visitors would see Balboa Park from within the Timken - a light and airy ‘see-through museum’ was a bold move at the time.

By Keith York

While architects Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson are not credited with designing any San Diego buildings, lighting designer, Richard Kelly, whom these two architects relied on for lighting the interiors and exteriors of their most notable projects, did help design the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Hired by the museum’s first director, Walter Ames, Kelly would contribute his ‘pioneering architectural lighting design’ to the structure and its surrounds. A connection to Johnson and Mies further legitimizes one of the most outstanding, public, examples of post-War modernist architecture in the region: The Timken Museum of Art.

Today, the Timken resides where architect Carleton Winslow’s Home Economy Building once stood. Designed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the structure, also known as the Pan-Pacific Building, the Cafe of the World, and the American Legion Building, was torn down in 1963.

Prior to the wrecking ball, the groundwork for the museum started in 1951, with the assistance of longtime friend and advisor Walter Ames (who would become the museum’s first Director), the Putnam sisters established the nonprofit Putnam Foundation, under which their artworks became designated as the Putnam Foundation Collection. Following Walter Ames securing financial support from the Timken family to help build the museum, the firm of Frank L. Hope and Associates was hired to design and build the museum. At the time, the firm was going through a growth spurt – hiring beyond the first dozen employees, several of whom had worked for Hope for decades.

By the early 1960s Hope’s firm was among the largest in the region. Like many of San Diego’s 20th century architects - they moved here from elsewhere. Frank L. Hope was born in San Bernardino. Shortly after working in Richard Requa’s office, Hope established his firm in 1928. The post-war building boom proved successful for Hope and his colleagues – the expansion included his son Frank L. Hope, Jr., joining the company in 1953. Frank Jr. would play a key role in managing the design team charged with the Timken project.

Following a stint with Victor Gruen and Associates, the U.S. Army and a few small firms, John Mock left a depressed Detroit for San Diego. Starting off in the Hope office as a draftsman in 1958, Mock would soon be elevated within the expanding firm to designer, to spec writer and ultimately Quality Control Director. Frank Hope Sr., once a week, was known to walk around the office to connect with the staff. During one of these walkabouts, he encountered John Mock’s drawings (exhibiting his design and graphics abilities) pinned-up around his workspace. This brokered a conversation with the new employee and soon thereafter a young John Mock was asked to join the company’s design team.

Prior to leaving Frank L. Hope and Associates, just as the Home Economy Building was being demolished, to start his own firm, John Mock was a member of the design team deployed to build something special for the Putnams, The Timkens, and San Diego. According to Mr. Mock, “…as a member of the Design Team I created the building. It was my concept of its design and importantly how it was to function.”

During his tenure at Hope’s firm, John Mock attended several meetings with Walter Ames, and both Franks to discuss the main design idea – to see the park from within. In contrast to other Balboa Park buildings, that focused internally on their own exhibits, the light and airy ‘see-through museum’ was taking shape. During this initial phase John recently recollected meeting with Paul McKim who, at the time, was working for Mosher and Drew on their designs for the Fine Arts Gallery (another light, see-through building) to the West. A building you can clearly see from within the Timken, not to mention the lily pond to the East (of the Timken).

Frank L. Hope and Associates would hire highly regarded lighting designer Richard Kelly, who trained as an architect, to design the museum’s lighting scheme – both on the interior and exterior. Akin to Louis Kahn’s and Philip Johnson’s (a close friend and career colleague to Kelly) art galleries of the same era, Kelly provided for filtered sunlight, via a unique skylight program, to bathe the work in a way that is both considerate to the health of the art and miraculously consistent through the sun’s daily journey across the sky. While the exterior lighting program is in need of restoration – a project Director John Wilson is excited to launch – its rebirth is highly anticipated. Wilson commented recently that even lighting professionals, while in San Diego for professional conferences, could, in addition to the myriad of students drawing and photographing the Timken, use it as a successful site to consider the short history of their design profession.

According to Mock, “…the museum’s construction documents were finished in 1961 or 62. I think John Dale was Job Captain. I wrote the Specs before I left, since I had recommended Travertine and Bronze as the Classical and durable materials most fitting for use. A lot of technical research was done. No building in San Diego made use of these materials at the time.”

John Mock left Hope to hang his own shingle in June of ’63 – the month the Hindman Residence, one of his moonlighting projects, was published by San Diego Magazine. Following Mock’s departure, the team wrapped up detailed drawings of the Timken. Hope’s lead designer, Howard Shaw, provided the designs for the grill work and bronze fascia scheme on the exterior. Shaw, a traditional architect, designed several local churches for the firm, including University of San Diego’s Immaculata. The grills, railings, and fascia have been linked to his more ‘romantic’ designs for religious clients.

While others have voiced their opinions including calling the Timken one of the “many distracting elements…introduced since 1916”, “non-conforming”, among the “incongruities that include the pallid, moribund Fine Arts Gallery”, among the “buildings that did not harmonize with the surviving Exposition buildings on El Prado, or simply “cheap and boxlike”. My favorite comment came more recently when a colleague of my wife’s called the building “dead sexy”.

If one were to survey architectural styles, themes, and how designers articulated a variety of programs, they would likely conclude very little of the harmony that is often bandied about. Heading east on Laurel Street across Cabrillo Bridge, one is struck by the Gill-esque simplicity of the Administration Building (ca. 1911) prior to witnessing the towering Spanish colonial church bell tower that is the Museum of Man (and Citizen Kane’s reference to Hearst Castle). Immediately ahead, flanking the Prado are the House of Charm, while a multiplex of styles can be found in the Old Globe and a recently dreamed-up arcade hiding Mosher & Drew’s Fine Arts Gallery and sculpture court. From there visitors witness art deco and pueblo, Moorish, Spanish, and 1980s and ‘90s abstractions of it all. The San Diego Zoo, Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, World Beat Center, Thompson Medical Library, and a host of other structures in and around the Park exhibit more of a stylistic range than rigor.

Certainly the Timken and Fine Arts Gallery are the best evidence of 1960s modernity proffered by some of the best talent San Diego had to offer at the time. But architect Albert Kahn's Ford Building (now the San Diego Air & Space Museum), designed for the 1933-34 Century of Progress, proffers an earlier modernity and technological idealism that many of the more-traditional buildings portray outwardly in their facades. And to say that any of these buildings are the stripped down ornament-free ideas that modernists desired, is also false. The Fine Arts Gallery is heavily decorated – the fascia motif, stylized columns and bronze garden gates are all by sculptor Malcolm Leland. Howard Shaw dressed up the Timken entry in floral themed bronze plates and continued the abstraction to the bronze railings, gates and grill-work that contributes to the light, airy feeling of the Timken’s glazed openings. When a Voice of San Diego contributor called the Timken a flat modernist structure that's several centuries out of sync with the rest of Balboa Park” it reflects more on the source than it does on the building itself.

One of the most striking juxtapositions of the Timken Museum of Art is the romantic historicism evident on the interior walls. The Timken’s American, Russian and European old master paintings hang in a building that all but disappears during the visitors’ experience. The symmetry, balance and palette of materials (travertine, bronze, steel and glass) allows a stage to be set for the onlooker unlike any other structure in the park. From Giambologna’s Mercury in the building’s foyer, a visitor can engage with the Lily Pond to the East and the Fine Arts Gallery to the West as the sun rises and sets. Garden courts piercing the structure’s waist-line, to the north and south, do what few public buildings effectively do – blurring any lines between interior and exterior spaces – engaging San Diego’s moderate climate and sunshine.

To hear John Mock reflect on the design program as a “light and airy H-plan” is reasonable. But when he took it one step further, saying that the desire was to offer visitors a ‘see-through museum’, one has to consider the design ideals of an era – not a traditionalist seeking retribution for its non-conformity. As the building’s lifespan begins to rival that of its predecessor, Winslow’s Home Economy Building, one has to consider its own landmark appeal. One has to also disrobe provincialism and consider the Timken’s cousins – The Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn (ca. 1967), and Philip Johnson’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute’s Museum of Art (ca. 1960), the Amon Carter Museum (ca. 1961), and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (ca. 1963) – rather than the House of Charm.

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