San Bernardino City Hall is a long and skinny building. It is six stories tall and constitutes 14,279 square feet of civic office and support space. Completed in 1972, it was designed by Cesar Pelli, an architect then working for the studio of Victor Gruen alongside Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first Black female licensed architect in New York and California, who would later work on the design of the American embassy in Tokyo and the Mall of America outside Minneapolis. The entirety of San Bernardino City Hall is clad in brown-black reflective glass and elevated on big, cylindrical columns: you process past the columns and into one of the narrow ends, as you would a Greek temple. The entrance is marked by big three-dimensional sans serif letters that seem to float in midair. The glass skin turns and also wraps the underside. This is an act of architectural rhetoric that tells you that the building is not what it actually is — seven steel-reinforced ferroconcrete slabs lifted on a point grid of steel columns, stuffed with ducts and machines to keep it cool — but something more like solid crystal. The resemblance is enhanced by the chamfered corners and other lapidary incisions and deflections. As you enter, the sensation is of embarking on a convenient spaceship.
A little more than a decade after Pelli and Sklarek designed San Bernardino City Hall, Pelli redesigned the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He was at that moment perhaps the most lauded architect in America. A decade after that, he designed One Canada Square, the landmark office skyscraper for London’s Canary Wharf redevelopment that provided office space for banks profiting from England’s rapid deregulation of financial services. By that time, Pelli had relinquished his cultural stature of a decade earlier but had gained influential patrons — as captured in an iconic photograph of him and Margaret Thatcher surveying a model of Canary Wharf, he in a dark suit with his chin lowered and head tilted in a courtier’s posture of deference, she upright with a long Hermès-ish scarf and signature smile.
San Bernardino City Hall now looks like nothing. Or rather it looks like everything else — the third building on the left in some exurban office park, unspectacular behind rows of cars and bushes. But in 1969 it looked like something. Out there in the Inland Empire of Southern California was the fulfillment of a Weimar fantasy. The two maneuvers with the glass, the wrapping and the tinting, dated back forty years to the interwar modernism of Central Europe, particularly to the Bauhaus school and the work of its last director, Mies van der Rohe. During his time running the school, Mies drew linear and curvilinear glass towers in charcoal that were unbuildable with the technology of the time. With their ostensible transparency or mere shimmer, these buildings were meant to address the squalor and terror of the decade that preceded them — even more so than the white walls also then popular among the avant-garde. “The new era is a fact,” Mies said in a speech in 1930. “It exists, irrespective of our ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Yet it is neither better nor worse than any other era. It is pure datum, in itself without value content.”
Mies emigrated to America in 1937 and was successfully patronized by Philip Johnson, who in his burgeoning interest in Nazism had visited Germany a decade earlier and had occasion to first meet the older man. In 1954 — with the American patron and operator playacting as protégé and designer — the two collaborated on Manhattan’s Seagram Building, a skyscraper at the corner of Park Avenue and East 52nd Street. Technology had somewhat caught up by then: the glass curtain wall was tinted an amber bronze — anecdote has it that the color was chosen in deference to the liquor company’s brown products. And, at least on the Park Avenue side, the tower appeared to be in the process of being lifted away from the ground on columns, as would San Bernardino City Hall a decade and a half later. Also like San Bernardino today, Seagram is a building that was once specific and is now generic. In 1957 it stood out from its masonry-clad neighbors; now, surrounded by its glassy imitators and successors, it’s an unintentionally unassuming background building, save for an atypical care with small details and the palpable erudition of its stealth-neoclassical proportions.
From some angles, San Bernardino resembles the spaceship that alights at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If you were filming a television show set in a futuristic landscape, the building would suit. I cannot think of another point in history in which the built environment of fifty to a hundred years ago could be used to signify the future, as is the case today. Surely the word retrofuturistic should be far less legible to us than it seems to be.
Then again, you could also use San Bernardino City Hall for another kind of period piece — a Spielbergian or sub-Spielbergian movie about tween-age ennui and subsequent adventure out there in the sprawl, the kind of story that involves space travel or time travel or both. In this scenario the building would serve as one of the squat glassy boxes that revolve past you, glimpsed from within your friend’s mom’s station wagon on the freeway, or whose parking lot provides a venue for skateboarding or sex in the back seat. In a movie like E.T. a building like San Bernardino would indicate boringness and the prim, demonstrative, corporate efficiency of an establishment indifferent to your particular happiness.