The monument preservers of San Jose try to guard the constructing of the brutalist César Pelli from demolition
Before his name became synonymous with very tall skyscrapers, the late Argentine architect César Pelli completed a handful of projects in the 1960s and 1970s – all with Gruen Associates – that were decidedly, but not exclusively, squarely: A (now demolished) Mall in Columbus, Indiana; An (endangered) former research facility in Clarksburg, Maryland for a congressional satellite communications company and the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is long and big but not too lanky.
Completed in 1973, two years before West Hollywood’s “Blue Whale” settled on Melrose Avenue, Pelli completed another “low” project: a bank building in the Brutalist Bay Area. The old Bank of California building at 1170 Park Avenue in downtown San Jose is an imposing structure with slightly sphinx-like attributes. Demolition is now threatened as part of a recovery plan led by the Jay Paul Company. Pelli’s building would be demolished along with several neighboring buildings to make way for 3.79 million square feet of commercial space housed in a cluster of gleaming glass towers.
The crusade to save the concrete building is now being initiated by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission. At the behest of the San Jose Preservation Action Council, the commission unanimously voted last week to recommend that the San Jose City Council declare Pelli’s work a landmark.
As the Mercury News pointed out, the Bank of California building would not be immune to future demolition if councilors ultimately decided to approve the historic designation. However, landmark status would increase the stakes and put additional pressure on officials to save the structure, which was not only home to several banks but was most recently used as a district court. It is currently unoccupied. Keepers believe that with some changes to Jay Paul’s proposed redevelopment plan for Cityview Plaza, the new office towers and the nearly 50-year-old Pelli building can live together in harmony.
True to its appearance, the building has been an easy target of public disdain over the years. However, it is based on the recent trend of appreciating and, more importantly, maintaining buildings that were constructed in the same monolithic style that became popular in the late 1950s and 1960s.
If the Brutalist-style building were to be designated a Historic Landmark, it could prompt Jay Paul Co. to either change the layout of the planned CityView Plaza redevelopment or to expand the collection of properties in downtown San Jose for the project. https://t.co/wGGqzjOnD5
– Matt Niksa (@ MattN365) May 7, 2020
According to Mercury News, the structure is “the best example” of Brutalist architecture in San Jose and, according to Juliet Arroyo, the city’s heritage commissioner, “because of its design quality, love of design, materials and method.”
“It’s an asset to downtown San Jose,” said Ben Leech, executive director of the city’s Preservation Action Council, local columnist Sal Pizarro. “We can learn from the past and know that every period of architecture goes through a phase where it is overlooked before it is appreciated. Buildings like this one will be the future jewels of the city of San Jose. “
To raise awareness of the building’s endangered status, the city council recently launched the “Save the Sphinx” campaign, which refers to the planned demolition of the “historic, iconic building that is both short-sighted and unnecessary,” and urges residents to demonstrate their support for the preservation of the building by signing a petition to city officials. The Northern California Chapter of Docomomo and the architecture critic and historian Alan Hess are among those who have written to the powers that be to urge them to protect the building.
Despite this growing number of people gathering to save Pelli’s blocky building, others believe the time has come, including original developer Lew Wolff. He wrote to city officials in March, denying any suggestion that the building was of historic importance, while claiming, as reported by Mercury News, that it was supported by a design not designed by Pelli but by an intern had been.
“I like the building, but please don’t offend César or (Sidney) Brisker by over-identifying the building with these fine gentlemen,” he wrote in his email. “If anyone is interested, the real credit should go to the intern who completed the plans.”
Unless the schedule shifts, the redevelopment plan that could ultimately get rid of the Pelli building and the proposed designation of historic landmarks that could help save the building are expected to both be discussed at the same city council meeting this summer.