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Lunch With Architect and Legend - John Pflueger

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


My lunch date with John Pflueger, Sonoma-based architect and head of the oldest architectural firm west of the Mississippi, included a memorable trip down a time tunnel. A trip that transported me back to the year 1907 and to the city of San Francisco. A city reemerging from a devastating earthquake one year earlier. A city whose distinct skyline, piers and colorful neighborhoods were in their infancy. It would be 25 years before the construction of its two famous bridges would even begin. In those years and beyond, John Pflueger, his father Milton and his uncle Timothy would play pivotal roles in the design and development of many significant structures we still see today.


In 1907, a 15-year-old future world-renowned architect, Timothy Pflueger, began his prolific career as an architect. Before his sudden death in 1946, Timothy’s accomplishments included the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building, landmark theaters such as the Castro and the Oakland Paramount, and the precedent-setting skyscraper, the San Francisco Stock Exchange.


Timothy was also the founder of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One of his earliest trademarks was integrating art into his works. He commissioned Diego Rivera to do a monumental fresco in the Stock Exchange and brought in Ansel Adams to photograph his lounges in the Top of the Mark, St. Francis and Fairmont hotels.


As a 20-year San Francisco resident, I’ve worked in, eaten, shopped, studied, banked, or otherwise enjoyed many Timothy Pflueger designs. And you, no doubt have at least crossed one - the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. As Chairman of the Board of Architects, Timothy’s good judgment and rejection of needless embellishments stopped this iconic bridge from becoming a gaudy, black, neo-Gothic monstrosity.


Timothy’s Union Square Garage and Plaza was the first underground garage beneath a city park. Across the street, he designed I Magnin and incorporated the idea of creating individual boutiques within one department store. Timothy Pflueger had not yet completed this work when he suffered a fatal heart attack after his nightly swim at the Olympic Club. During his lifetime, he filled a portfolio of Art Deco, Beaux Arts, Spanish Colonial, Moorish Revival, Spanish Baroque, and Streamline Moderne brilliance.


Timothy’s brother, and my lunch companion’s father, Milton, assumed the responsibilities of the Pflueger firm. Milton's own accomplishments include the Richmond Civic Center and projects at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, City College of San Francisco, Holy Names College in Oakland, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, and Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C.


As John and I made our way back from the time tunnel, he reflected on his own career which is still going strong. For over 40 years, his passion for designing buildings that consume the least amount of energy, take full advantage of natural ventilation patterns, thermal mass, evaporative cooling, heat recapturing, water storage, and calculated sunlight and shading has won him several awards. John has also had a special interest in combining his research of ancient cultures and sacred sites with his Self-Sufficiency Villages built in Guatemala, Gambia, Australia, Hawaii, Mexico, Arizona and Clear Lake, California.


John, an architectural maverick in his own right, joined the family firm in 1965. His forward-thinking, award-winning endeavors include Cowell Hall at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Early in his career, John entertained the idea of following in his uncle’s footsteps by integrating artists into his work. Timothy had called on Diego Rivera, Ansel Ansel and Ralph Stackpole (San Francisco’s own Michelangelo) as well as other talents.


But John found himself most interested in water and energy conservation. In the 1970s he concluded that all buildings should be designed to require the least amount of energy. He believed that alternative sources such as sunlight, shading, water storage, natural ventilation, evaporative cooling, and waste heat recapture should be implemented before employing conventional means. At the core of John Pflueger’s respected reputation is his commitment to this philosophy. Decades before peer pressure and government regulations, John had designed numerous energy efficient buildings, most notably, the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento. He later went on to create energy manuals for Bank of America and Pacific Gas and Electric.


John has also combined this commitment with his interest in ancient cultures and sacred sites. He applied the concept of a “self-sufficient village” to his designs for medical clinics in the jungles of Guatemala and in Gambia, Africa and to health resorts around the world. Like sacred sites, self-sufficiency facilities are oriented to the cardinal points of the galaxy which naturally use a minimum amount of energy and produce their own using water, wind and sun systems.


John also extends these concepts to residential projects. His latest work is the Gracianna Estate along the Russian River. He designed the central living space using the same proportions of width to length to height as the naves of Gothic cathedrals. As with these cathedrals, one enters from the west and faces the mid-summer sunrise over the river. John’s strategic placement of windows in relation to the property’s deciduous trees follows energy defensive concepts and his signature approach to designing in environmental harmony.

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