Graduating from Columbia University in 1947, Temko taught for seven years in France and produced a landmark book about Notre Dame. Temko began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961. He also taught city planning at University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere.
Temko was an activist critic who defended the urban character and texture of San Francisco from, in his words, "a variety of villains: real estate sharks, the construction industry and its unions, venal politicians, bureaucrats, brutal highway engineers, the automobile lobby, and -- in some ways worst of all -- incompetent architects and invertebrate planners who were wrecking the Bay Area before our eyes." One of these villains, an architect named Sandy Walker, famously sued Temko over his 1978 description of Walker's Pier 39 project which began, "Corn. Kitsch. Schlock. Honky-tonk. Dreck. Schmaltz. Merde."
Temko was instrumental in the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and memorably described the 1971 Armand Vaillancourt Fountain on the Embarcadero as a thing "deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines."
He also made a comment about the Hayward City Center in the early 1970s calling it a toaster (due to its appearance) and in a tone for everyone to hate it.
Temkoe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1990. Temko appears in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road as the character "Roland Major". Temko also appeared in Kerouac's Book of Dreams as Irving Minko and in Visions of Cody as Allen Minko.