Architectural Surprises Await in the ‘Flatlands’

By JOHN KENYON Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 27, 2004

Berkeley’s Flatland, the gently sloping East Bay Shelf between, say, Martin Luther King Jr. Way and the water-edge, has never been famous for distinguished architecture. Most of it, apart from a handful of surviving Victorians in Oceanview—the original water-based settlement—is an uneventful mix of modest bungalows ranging from “Sub Craftsman” to “Plebian Ranch,” and made bearable here and there by surviving old trees and the city’s generous street-tree program. Friends or relatives from distant places might be driven slowly around the UC Campus or along Grizzly Peak for the views, but only a dedicated urban geographer would wish to be exposed to San Pablo Avenue or any stretch of the bland streets on either side. 

In recent years, the one dramatic intervention into this visual limbo is developer Denny Adams’ Fourth Street, that designer paradise of elegant shops and cafes that has become Berkeley’s Second Downtown. But now, here and there, are signs of architectural life in the residential flatland itself. Some are modest—a vine trellis here, a nice paint job there, or a cluster of nicely rehabbed dollhouse Victorians—but others are bold, novel, and happy to be admired. 

Drive along Ninth Street just south of Gilman, and you might notice, across the humble back-gardens and garages, a striking little studio tower rising behind a bungalow somewhere on Tenth Street. Drive back to Berkeley up Hollis, past Emeryville’s proud parade of industrial conversions, and you will come face to face, right at the turn to Berkeley’s Seventh Street, with two gleaming metallic live/work twins that challenge every cherished notion of desirable siting. Some of these new structures are detached houses, others second-floor additions, but all have in common freedom from the sort of “contextualism” that is, all to often, timid conformity to the prevailing neighborhood look. 

Here are six easy-to-find examples, all but one located in Berkeley: 


1025 West Place, Albany (off Posen). The urbane, strangely monumental house is a total surprise at the top of an alley-like dead-end street opposite St. Mary’s Campus. It skillfully exploits a quiet private lot, the back garden quite hidden from public view. The dominant walls—roofs hidden behind parapets—give it a very European or Latin American look. 

755 and 801 Folger St. (between Hollis and Seventh). These almost identical “live-work” buildings both match and improve their tough industrial setting—a contextual triumph for once! Above an office and an artist’s studio are elegant “high tech” apartments with lofts. The deep blue privacy wall and the shaggy trees have already softened the “metal shed” aesthetic. 

1406 Tenth St. (just south of Camellia). Mentioned above, this little tower built over the back portion of a late 1940s bungalow is an independent living unit with a view-loft above, clever color and a matching pitched roof link these quite dissimilar structures together and enliven the whole street. 

1265 Monterey Ave. (east side, north of Hopkins). This very suburban brick bungalow was the last house you’d expect to sprout a spirited “functionalist” expansion—mainly a north-facing double-studio for the occupants. However, a matching roof-slope, some changes to the existing frontage, creative use of color and a remarkable garden have pulled the whole gutsy thing together. 

1010 Cedar St. (just below San Pablo Avenue). A studio with a “barrel vault” roof and a view balcony in back creates a useful third level on this gently expanded old house. Despite the low-key wood boarded exterior, the city gave the owner a hard time for not “fitting in.” 

1813 Ninth St. (north of Hearst). Almost hidden behind an old red-painted cottage, this small, willfully picturesque house splits a largish back yard into three intimate outdoor areas. Bold stucco features, horizontal boards, exposed rafters and an additive-looking “shed” recall earlier Bay Region design. 

“Essential Berkeley” began around the magnificent hillside site of the UC Campus. Thus, almost all the local work of famous Bay Region architects is in this privileged area, along with hundreds of other delightful “view homes.” In contrast, the Flatlands—the busy traffic grid with its sea of humble dwellings on identical lots, seems boring if not ugly, and hardly gets a mention in architectural guidebooks. 

Encouraging, then, to see these modest demonstrations of lively professional design popping up in the city’s “forgotten half,” and likely to increase in number as the cost of building in the woodsy hills becomes astronomical.