When people think of the architecture of San Francisco, visions of the Painted Ladies and other classic Victorians often come to mind. However, San Francisco-based architect and artist Michael Murphy knows that the city also has many wonderful examples of modern architecture that are sometimes overlooked and not appreciated.
His “Forgotten Modernism” series, an ongoing catalog of modern architecture, seeks to draw attention to these buildings.
“I tried to highlight background buildings, which may be forgotten buildings that have been lost in the landscape,” says Murphy, 49. “I try to make them stand out a little and get people to see them more clearly . ”
The series includes 25 buildings including the Loudspeaker Tower in Aquatic Park, the Hyatt Embarcadero, and St. Mary’s Cathedral on Geary Boulevard.
“Bridges separate you from the city and you walk in and it’s peaceful and calm,” he says of the design of the sprawling church. “That’s a very powerful thing an architect can do.”
Murphy, the son of a building contractor who studied at the College of San Mateo before going to the University of New Mexico, where he completed his architectural degree, first sketched the structures in pencil. The sketches eventually become digital drawings that are used to create eye-catching giclee prints in bright colors on heavyweight watercolor paper that has been signed and numbered by Murphy.
The series is available online and in retail stores, including in the store of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It began when Murphy returned to San Francisco in 2008 after six years in London and four years in Dublin to enjoy European culture and architecture.
At that time, the recession and the layoff of an architecture firm caused Murphy to take the leap from architecture to art. It started out simple enough – he noticed a house in Presidio Heights and made a rough drawing that eventually led to a series of drawings that he posted on Facebook. His architectural friends loved his work and that gave him the confidence to explore more buildings.
Eventually, he started selling his work at local retailers and galleries, including RAG SF (Residents Apparel Gallery), Wonderland SF, and Zinc Details. By 2010 Murphy stopped looking for work as an architect and focused on his art. He worked in a studio in his home that he shares with his wife, an architect, in the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco.
“It’s great not having a boss,” he says with a smile, “and I love the creative freedom to focus on the buildings I want to focus on.”
Murphy recently expanded his work to include Los Angeles and Palm Springs architecture. His various illustrations and paintings are exhibited in galleries in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He also has plans to make renderings of the Berkeley Art Museum and the Golden Gate Park County Fair Building for the Northern California chapter of Docomomo, a nonprofit group dedicated to documenting and preserving buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement.
Murphy believes his time abroad will allow him to see the modern architecture of California and the Bay Area with new eyes. The bold colors he uses in his work make him “strip off part of the building and look at it differently to create another level of understanding of what is happening,” he says. The simplicity of modern architecture, Murphy says, can make it deceptively difficult to do the right thing.
“I compare it to an Armani suit,” he says. “It’s much more difficult to make things look simple. You can’t just cover up mistakes.”
This article has been corrected since it was published in online editions.
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