The article below originally appeared in SFGate and is being reprinted with permission.
When people think of San Francisco architecture, visions of the Painted Ladies and other classic Victorians often come to mind. But architect-turned-artist Michael Murphy, a San Francisco native, knows that the city also has many wonderful examples of modern architecture that sometimes go overlooked and unappreciated.
His “Forgotten Modernism” series, an ongoing catalog of modern architecture, tries to bring attention to these buildings.
“I tried to highlight background buildings that are maybe forgotten buildings lost in the landscape,” says Murphy, 49. “I try to bring them out a bit and make people notice them more.”
The series encompasses 25 buildings and counting, including the speaker tower in Aquatic Park, the Hyatt Embarcadero and St. Mary’s Cathedral on Geary Boulevard.
“Bridges separate you from the city, and you go inside and it’s peaceful and serene,” he says of the design of the sprawling church. “That’s a very powerful thing an architect can do.”
Murphy, the son of a contractor who studied at the College of San Mateo before attending the University of New Mexico, where he earned his architectural degree, starts by sketching the structures in pencil. The sketches eventually become digital drawings used to create striking giclee prints with vibrant colors on heavy watercolor paper, signed and numbered by Murphy.
Available online and at retail locations including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art store, the series started when Murphy returned to San Francisco in 2008 after spending six years in London and four years in Dublin soaking up European culture and architecture.
At the time, the recession and layoff from an architectural firm led Murphy to make the jump from architecture to art. It started simply enough – a house in Presidio Heights caught his eye, and he created a rough drawing that eventually led to a series of drawings he posted on Facebook. His architect friends loved his work and that gave him the confidence to explore even 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 employment as an architect and started concentrating on his art, working out of a studio in his home that he shares with his architect wife in the Outer Richmond District of San Francisco.
“Having no boss is great,” he says with a smile, “and I love the creative freedom of getting to focus on the buildings I want to focus on.”
Recently, Murphy has expanded his field of work to include the architecture of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, and his various illustrations and paintings are displayed at galleries in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. He also has plans to create 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 the documentation and preservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement.
Murphy believes his time abroad allows him to look at the modern architecture of California and the Bay Area with fresh eyes. The bold colors he uses in his work let him “strip out part of the building and look at it differently, to add another layer of understanding of what’s happening,” he says. The simplicity of modern architecture, Murphy notes, can make it deceptively difficult to do right.
“I compare it to an Armani suit,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to make things look simple. You can’t just cover up the mistakes.”