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Hearst Castle: A Question of Balance

By Mark Holden

MarkHoldenHearstCastleI just don't get Hearst Castle. Why should we celebrate the gross-scale purchases of historical artifacts and period-inspired structures by a wealthy American whose main pleasures seem to have involved amusing himself and overwhelming others?

I am willing to concede that Hearst's San Simeon compound and collections impress in their scale and sheer vastness, but shouldn't we, as design-oriented professionals, perceive his "achievement" with far more critical eyes than the average visitor to the estate?

Typically, we professionals are appalled when someone coughs up what might best be called a product-based design — that is, a project that solely meets a need instead of reflecting the designer, the setting and the client. In countless magazine articles and during my Genesis 3 classes on art and architectural history, I have condemned such designs — yet Hearst Castle somehow slips under the radar and is generally hailed as stupendous.

In reality, the estate is about as disjointed and wayward as architecture gets. It is frivolous and utterly lacking in genus loci or meaning.

A Child's Eye

My first visit to the hilltop castle occurred when I was a child of eight or nine. At that tender age, I was awestruck by the place, but at the time I lacked the critical skills required to understand where I was or what was going on. Now, after years of education and research, I see the crest at San Simeon as a Disney experience: little bits of this and that dressed to impress, but a space lacking continuity or any sense of design editing.

Great expenditures of money do not always translate to beauty. Many times, in fact, they do not.

If you visit Hearst Castle, stand on the deck of the Neptune Pool and gaze up at the Casa del Sol through the various relics and architectural treasures Hearst collected from sites in ancient Greece and Rome — and notice that the object of your gaze is a Spanish Colonial Revival building replete with Art Deco flourishes. From my perspective, this is architectural hash, a comingling of the incompatible that's more a tribute to Hearst's will than to any designer's skill.

There's no sense of harmony. All you find is cacophony in a context that is less inviting than it is overtly intimidating.

It leads to the question: Why do we find certain spaces uninviting? Typically, this unease arises when we sense discord or confront visuals that throw us off balance — basic psychological reactions. And a place like Hearst Castle should make us, as watershapers, even more uneasy because so many of us have been migrating toward more of a focused design discipline as we attempt to elevate our industry.

In that light, designers who perceive Hearst Castle as any sort of model are taking steps backward.

Don't get me wrong: I find merit in details around the estate and much exemplary engineering and watershaping — but only if I put on blinkers and view individual objects in a very tight perspective. The tile work is amazing, for example, and some of the objects on display are both breathtaking and clearly priceless.

But when I broaden my view and take in the entire hilltop, it is obvious that the bombastic impulses of a wealthy collector with often questionable taste won out over any considerate, appropriate design approach. Wealth does not bring taste with it, and the lesson here for watershapers is that landing a rich client does not necessarily mean a project will be great!

Ties That Bind

There are times when, as dignified design professionals, we need to rein in the wild emotional (and fiscal) impulses our clients might want to indulge, because often these impulses will be incongruent with the integrity of a project. There are indeed very few cases in which throwing money at art will result in actual beauty.

Thinking about Hearst Castle, I often wonder what would have happened if Frank Lloyd Wright or Pablo Picasso had gotten the call from Mr. Hearst: Would they have bent to Hearst's demands? Or would they have had the gumption to stand up for what they believed? It's hard to tell, but I would hope that the hilltop property would have been drastically different had such calls been made.

Essentially, what I want to do here is ask for an acknowledgment that Hearst Castle is a physical manifestation of Hearst's emotional states and not the product of anyone's architectural vision. When I visit, I see undeniable beauty and merit, but at the same time, I have never seen anything that should serve as models for us as watershapers. Nice vignettes, some good ideas, some wonderful unions of materials, lots of great engineering and craftsmanship — but a complete lack of masterful site-crafting or any control of movement through a quirky amalgamation of glorified movie sets.

I write this as someone who has visited the castle many, many times through the years — and as one who sees it as a place where there are things to be gleaned and learned. I'd enjoy hearing your own thoughts about the place — whether it's to take me on or expand on my perspectives on the place. Any thoughts will be helpful!

To see a selection of images of Hearst Castle, go to http://tinyurl.com/29hzm59.



For Mark Holden's further ruminations on Hearst Castle, click here.



Mark Holden, founder of Holdenwater in Fullerton, Calif., is a landscape architect, landscape and pool contractor, and educator specializing in watershapes. He is a veteran contributor to WaterShapes magazine. For more information, go to www.holdenwater.com.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest - Chris Carter

    Mark, I am a relatively new and young watershaper with a degree in Architecture from Georgia Institute of Technology. I will have to challenge your opinion about the balance and architectural significance of the Hearst Castle.

    Yes, you are right that there are many different architectural elements throughout Hearst Castle, which may seem a little awkward at first. As designers, we should actually have more of an appreciation for what is happening when we look a little further than just the cover.

    Have you thought about the function of the building? It is more of a museum showcasing Hearst's collection of various styles than just a home. In modern architecture we are taught function before form, and in this case the function was to visually appreciate the art collection of Hearst.

    Julia Morgan was an accomplished architect, having studied all over the world. Rather than build the norm, she pushed the limits of the rules of modern architecture and construction methods within the Spanish Baroque style.

    The Hearst Estate had the rare chance to be built to showcase the same artwork throughout its lifespan, rather than a revolving variation of different types of art. If it wasn't for the art, the building would never have been built (it started as a bungalow getaway), hence the different styles that you find uninviting.

    A question for you is, How do we view all of that intrinsic detail of the artwork in a setting other than the Hearst Castle? I'm afraid the Guggenheim Museums would not do it justice (Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright).

    Now, on to the Neptune Pool, which is a highlight of the Hearst Estate and this conversation. As architects, we are responsible for first asking ourselves the following question: What is the function of this space? In the beginning there is no form, only space. In the case of the Neptune Pool, the function is not to highlight the mansion in the backdrop, but rather the Greek artwork gathered by Hearst throughout his travels. The pool creates an inviting and complimentary space to view these treasures. That was its sole purpose and function, not to compliment the grounds of the complex.

    Morgan was well-trusted by Hearst, and rarely was she persuaded to do something a certain way. The pool was redesigned three times simply because the function changed, not because of poor design or displeasure from Mr. Hearst. So to attack her character and compare her to Frank Lloyd Wright is rather unfair. As for Pablo Picasso, he wasn't even an architect, and his cubist design of a building, I'm afraid, would have been much worse.

    I am all for incorporating the site with the home, waterscapes and landscape, but attacking this particular building was poor judgment. The Neptune Pool incorporated these elements, but was not defined by them; rather, it was defined by its function, which was to showcase Greek art.

    The Hearst Castle is balanced by the art, which makes it valid and architecturally significant.

    Chris Carter, Designer
    Sunbelt Pools of Georgia

  • Guest - Greg Boruff

    My first visit to the castle was also at a young age, and I recall being overwhelmed as well by the size and grandeur of the estate. Oddly enough, I am reading your article a week before going back for the first time since, and now look forward to applying your message as I re-experience the site. Great article!

    Greg Boruff,
    Questar Pools and Spas

  • Guest - Rob Lane

    I had been building pools in Kansas City for a long time and truly believed that I had built beautiful, difficult pools in impossible places. Then I toured Hearst Castle. It was certainly a lesson in humility. I understand your point of the hodgepodge, the mix-and-match of the place. It certainly does not have a central theme such as "Pirates Cove." It is a monument to building and engineering at the time.

    Rob Lane
    Preservation Pools and Fountains, Limited

  • Guest - Anonymous response

    Go back to when you were 8 years old. Your perspective was better.


  • Guest - Nelson Hammer

    San Simeon was built as a private residence for its owner; not a museum to cater to the wishes of its visitors, or to impress them. So I'm sure that the ghost of WRH is saying "Who cares what you think, Mr. H?" The architect, Julia Morgan, was charged more with creating a vehicle for displaying the artifacts Hearst collected during his lifetime than designing a residence. I only visited San Simeon once, as an adult (I'm also a landscape architect, in my 41st year of practice), and was properly impressed by all the excesses Morgan and Hearst were able to squeeze into it. I think it's a hoot! Sure, Architect Richard Morris Hunt's The Breakers in Newport, R.I. and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. are more cohesive compositions, but they were intended to be DESIGNS, not collections. Ms. Morgan had a much tougher assignment. Give her a break!

    Nelson Hammer
    Hammer Design

  • Guest - Chuck Woolstenhulme

    I have to agree with Mark's comments about the overall Hearst project, but I'm not sure that many of us have ever seen it as more than a reflection/expression of Hearst's personality. I, too, have toured the grounds many times (at least once with Mark, I believe), and have always felt like I was looking at a collection of amazing pieces that don't really fit well together. Having said that, Hearst Castle is still one of my favorite places to visit.

    Chuck Woolstenhulme
    IPS Controllers

  • Guest - Randy Angell

    Thank you for having the guts to voice this uncommon critique, which I have quietly muttered to myself for years. It is doubtful that Hearst would have given credence to anyone trying to stand in the way of his vision, but I would have found satisfaction in being the designer that got thrown off the job for trying to talk sense into him. Restraint is an underrated design quality!

    Randy Angell
    Pool Environments

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