VC Morris Shop
designed by: Frank Lloyd Wright
A couple of weeks ago [August, 2000], Gail and I spent a day in San Francisco. We stopped by the VC Morris Shop which is now sold to and managed by another retailer, Xanadu Folk Art. VC Morris was designed in 1948 so is now just past it’s 50th birthday. Both the design and the physical store, itself, have held up very well.
The Shop is a remodel of an old building on Maiden lane off of Union Square. It was one of the first works that started the resurrection of this old alley into a the “in” place it is today. The Shop is across the street from where Welton Beckett had their office, in the 1950s. In my first job in architecture, I was able to look out the window from my drafting table and see the Store. The Store was the second Wright building I ever saw and the first one that I had the opportunity to become familiar with. For these reasons - and because I just like the piece - it has always been on of my favorites.
The VC Morris Shop has always been a successful work of architecture and it continues to to be that half a Century after it’s building. Little has been done to change the Store and this is a blessing. The new owners use it well as the pictures show. There are, essentially three aspects of this project that stand out above all others. First, how the building seduces you and pulls you in it. Second, how the small foot print is employed to provide a great sense of open space, Prospect and Refuge - while at the same time - providing a great deal of surface display area. Third, the high level of detail and overall quality of the building without the architecture taking away from the items on display but enhancing their qualities.
Indeed, the goods look like they are on display in a museum not like a commodity to be bought and sold. The Shop is considered a “prototype” for the Guggenheim Museum which was designed a number of years earlier but not built until a decade later. The Shop is, generally much better detailed and finished than either the Guggenheim or the Marin County project which also went up in the late 50s.
I used to sit in my window watching people “discover” and respond to the Shop. They would be walking along the Lane and suddenly stop and look at the large brick wall of the front. This wall is unbroken except for an arch at one end of the building. The walker would walk to the arch, peer in - and here was the surprise - find themselves already “in” the environment before opening the door. Usually, they would walk in, and - usually - come out a half hour later with a package under their arms. This process greatly impressed me at the time - it still does. As can be seen, the exterior still reads in the intended way - the building stands out but does not shout. It is very present but quite. A firm presence. Of course the exterior is not completely “plain.” It is, in fact a carefully studied elevation that incorporates a great deal of subtle detail.
There is a great deal of turn-of-the-century Sullivan and Wright in this work. A modern and unique work but one firmly rooted in the tradition that Wright evolved from. Approaching the arch, one gets the feeling of a vault - of something valuable inside that is being protected. This is a Pattern Language that was quite common in the 1880s to the 1920s and used often, by Sullivan and others on institutional buildings and banks. It is interesting to see this “massive” form being used on the smaller scale of a shop building. The steel gate is a nice touch as it is both practical for locking the Store at night and also connotes “the vault is open” to the walker on the street. The detailing is brilliant here: the outer arch corbels outward while the inner arch corbels inward. From this perspective you cannot see what is inside but it is clear that there is something worth seeing. This is understanding ENTRY with a capital “E.” The overall effect simply draws you in.
Now we get to the the building’s great trick - and it is a trick much like is often done in music. This trick triggers humor. Kessler says that humor is triggered when the totally unexpected collides with the totally logical - that is what happens here. To the surprise of the walker, it turns out the arch is deep and gives way to an arch of glass that frames a 2 story open space with a spiral ramp winding it’s way to the top. A top of Plexiglas bubbles providing a soft glow of light for the entire space. Of course, at this point, you are already inside. All that is left to do is formalize this by opening the door and taking a few more steps. Can you resist the ramp - and all the interesting objects on display? Few can. This entry into a retail area makes most contemporary shopping experiences like walking into a 1930s five and dime. By the time you have entered the building you have gone through four carefully engineered transitions and the world outside is far behind. This is Interface design at it’s best. This is mastery. It is all accomplished with a simplicity of materials and gesture. The excitement is in the viewer not the flamboyance of the structure.
Because the brick arch comes over beyond the vertical and seems to be held up by the glass and thin mullions that complete it’s curve, an underlying sense of tension and excitement is introduced in a space of serenity. This is one of the best examples of prospect and refuge ever created in the same space at the same time. All accomplished in less than a 100 square feet. Rest from the noisy world is provided while expectation is raised. Beauty surrounds without intimidating. The use of scale is without flaw.
Still under the shelter of the ramp, the walker slowly moves into the open space. There are four choices in which to move. Each offers a profoundly different kind of space and sense of exposure. Each starts the experience in a different way. Not one is dominate or subordinate. You really have a choice here - but nothing is telling you to make it in a hurry. This is a moment of accumulation. One takes you diagonally across the room to the ramp - where the journey upward starts. Another, directly to the left, presents a small alcove - snug and safe - a refuge for the shy or uncertain. To the right is a long narrow walkway that clearly goes around and behind the ramp. Forward and slightly to the left - across the room and in a space of it’s own - is a counter and the domain of the shopkeeper. Everywhere, in plain sight, in nooks and crannies, on tables and in alcoves - are works of craft and art. Nothing shouts or compels you to hurry. The sense is that all this is for your enjoyment and you can take your time without obligation.
I expect most people go up the Ramp first - that is what I did when I first saw the building. The Ramp is an interesting experience. It provides three “competing” views. The bubble light ceiling is a strong architectural element. It would be overwhelming for the space except for the fact it is a creature of light - more like an idea than a built thing. As one walks up, the ceiling get closer so that - at the top - it is just above head height. You tend to do this - walk up, at first, looking at the light above. Then you eye is pulled to a series of niches - circular forms in the Ramp wall holding interesting things. It is then you look down and see what is below. In a short period of time, you find yourself at mid point enjoying all three vantage points. For it’s size, this must be one of the most complex spaces ever created.
Once on on the top level there are a number of places, around the perimeter, for display. Although there is a simple material and color palette and consistency of shapes and detail, the Store is rich in it’s variety of different spaces.
When I used to visit the store in the 50s there were two Persian cats that lived in the store and loved to sleep draped around rare objects worth thousands of dollars. The story goes that they were described in the architect’s specifications. I have never been able to verify this but I can believe it. In as much as I know they never broke anything. They were pure white and had that look that only a cat can have. They made it clear that they owned the place and all the rest of us were just visitors. This visit there were no cats and this is a loss. Buildings should be made for animals, as well as, people. Homes do better, of course, but commercial work is far to devoid of life of all kinds. Why do we do this?
Back on the first floor the alternative paths are still waiting.
Notice, with this architect, that no matter the variety of space and the almost endless surprises, you are never lost - you always know where you are. As a simple example, in the center picture, above, you notice the square translucence blocks. If you remember these are seen on the exterior front wall at the cast stone ledge. This “line” is expressed inside and out. When you are inside, you “know” when you are at the front. The same thing is accomplished upstairs with the vertical line at the left side (facing the building). Only, on the second level there is a small opening window that is build into the display furniture that affords a view out onto the lane. A small detail but significant. This work is full of them.
VC Morris exemplifies several of Wrights’s strongest signature traits:

Extraordinary human scale, sense of repose and shelter while, at the same time, an exuberant sense of mystery, adventure and prospect.

An architect renowned for his ability to site a building and offer views onto the landscape, handled a tight urban setting with the same skill - this time deliberately “shutting” the street off in a way that achieved great integration and intimacy with it.

Timeless forms, materials and symbolism - this building, while clearly not new, is not in need of a facelift. Just the opposite. It is fresh and it’s basic stance on the street still works after 50 years of development around it.

A simple palette: brick, wood, plaster, stone (floor) and Plexiglas. Each material has a single architectural assignment and carries it off with clarity. The materials are high quality and look good a half a Century later.

Simple geometry - in this case the circle and the square - used masterfully to create unforced shapes and spaces of great variety utility and beauty.

I learned a lot of architecture from this building.
The major lession, however, turned out to be seminal in it’s implications. Years ago as I looked at VC Morris from my second story drafting table, at how people responded to the building, I realized that the building defined a PROCESS. In this case it was a gentle, but powerful, process of introducing and selling merchandise. VC Morris was a work of art and earned it’s living supporting a commercial enterprise - without compromise to either assignment. Here was an example of embedding a pragmatic process in art. A shocking revelation and one that came to dominate my own work from 1980 through the present.
What I was being told - at the time - was impossible - was happening below me less than a 100 feet away.
As Gail and I left the VC Morris Shop, the arch framed a view to the third-story window of the old Beckett office where I started in architecture 44 years ago [link] last June [as of 2000]. This moment, reached back and forth in time - it fused a lifetime of questions [link]. It provided a pleasant memory of that young boy, looking out the window, once watching the Master architect getting out of a car to visit the Shop, perpectually buying his architectural books at lunch hour and taking them home to read most of the night, struggling to understand why more people did not see what I saw in this man and his work.
I made some promises to myself looking out that window - promises I have never broken but mostly I have not accomplished either. Architecture is a strange endeavor. It is so rare. It is, usually recognized and loved when it does happen but each project seems like starting all over again. Works like this should be the norm - not the exception [link] that they, unfortunately, are. This has been my experience; almost total acceptance of everything I have built and enormous resistance to each project as if it was the first.
The VC Morris Shop is an outstanding example of the architectural art. It is a successful commercial building. It has been lovingly preserved by it’s owners. It is all the more worthy of praise because it is not an “important” building in size or type - in materials or even budget by modern standards. It is significant because a great architect and serious clients invested themselves totally in the project and gave to the building without reservation.
The building has been giving back - without reservation. - for half a Century.
October 16, 2004 Notes:
Today, Gail, Jeff, Katie and I visited the store. Its magic still holds. VC Morris is one of 16 Frank Lloyd Wrights’s buildings that the AIA has designated as making a significant contribution to American architecture. A good choice. It is almost impossible to criticize this building. It is so near perfect for its purpose that any flaws are not worthy of mention. And, as I have noted, it is unique in that there is no significance to it in terms of the “importance” of the work as commonly measured by size, cost, use and social impact.
Wright once said that “the size of the commission did not matter except for the money manner.” He certainly practiced this idea if you think of the Usonians [link] and VC Morris which is most likely one of the more modest works to be recognized by the AIA. I first read this statement of Wright’s in a book of his, that I had purchased at noon, looking out of the window by my drafting stool at VC Morris across the narrow street. This was an attitude and Creed so different from the world of commercial architecture I was in at that time [link]; a world that thought of size of the structure and the prestige of the client and the statement that it all made as what made it worth doing and defined who you were and the measure of your professional success.
It may be an accident of history or perhaps a deeper principle acting that has lead me to a series of decisions that have resulted in all my built works to be remodel projects of modest scale and prominence. They have served their users well and made a difference in their lives. It is interesting that my most recent is about the size of VC Morris and tucked away in a school where few will ever see it [link]. Like VC Morris, it is intimate and based on a process that it facilitates - it creates a world of its own away from the busy traffic and distractions of life. It uses basic materials; it employs simple geometry; it makes an environment. In the world of architecture today it is unlikely to be considered important.
At the time of this visit, I am working on completing my SFIA Master’s Thesis [link]. One of the tasks that is part of this is to critique several architects, their work and relate this work to my development. I was 10 years old when VC Morris was built and 18 when I went to work in architecture across the street from it in my favorite city, San Francisco. As I struggled to resolve the difference between the world of architecture that I had imagined and the world I found myself in, the little shop across the street was a life-line to me. A demonstration that a different world was possible. My time with FLlw, which followed in a couple of years, was early in my development - at the most impressionable time in my development. His work and personality is embedded in me on a primary level [link]. I still feel him as a strong presence. I cannot undo this experience - and I do not want to. The range of my thinking, experience and work has traveled well beyond the reality of Mr. Wright’s world yet the gift he gave me is still at the core of my being. It is not what he taught me - which was a great deal - it is is what he stood for and how he brought the living presence of his life and his Master to me so I can sense a continuity that goes back to Sullivan and the 19th Century. Because of this experience, I can see in his works, and in the works of other’s, more than an interpretation limited to the present moment. Was Wright, in his 80s, when he did this building, remembering his master - gone by this time more than 30 years - by referencing Sullivan’s later bank projects? Was he reaching back to his roots? Was he pulling his past forward into the future? Can I feel Sullivan and his relationship to a young apprentice, now today, as I walk through this space that meant so much to me when I was becoming awake to possibilities of what architecture can be? Can I feel the same kind of bond with those who will follow me?
How else does ART [link] get passed from era to era? What liabilities accrue with the absence of this kind of personal Mentoring and experience? Do we over-train with information and technique, today, and ignore the human?
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Go to: Work Retreat February 05

Matt Taylor
Palo Alto
August 13, 2000


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Posted: August 13, 2000

Revised: September 16, 2004
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Copyright® Matt Taylor 2000, 2004






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