Press Releases

Viewless Apartments Mar Buildings of Distinction: By JOHN KENYON

Special to the Planet
Friday November 05, 2004

Long ago in England, in a bizarre BBC interview, an ancient Irish countryman with a voice from a J.M. Synge play was expressing his low opinion of architecture. Asked about St. Paul’s Cathedral, he opined that, “All buildings are ugly, but some are uglier than others.” Fifty years later I feel somewhat the same about the “built environment” of Berkeley, particularly the new crop of downtown apartments squeezed into landlocked “opportunity sites.” 

Two in particular, one facing Shattuck Square and the other at University Avenue and Milvia Street, are worth a hard look. Touted as “smart,” they might qualify as architecture, i.e., exterior style, but they surely fail as civilized development. Each is hemmed-in by existing old structures that rob perhaps a third of the new living units of light, views, or both. At the same time, each is respectablized culturally by presenting lovingly designed entrance facades to the main avenue. Both are projects of Panoramic Interests, a Berkeley infill development company. 

Kirk Peterson’s Bachenheimer Building at 2119 University Ave., with its cleverly designed Italianate fantasy overlooking Shattuck Square, yearns to be dominating a pedestrian plaza in Rome or Venice, but the narrow lot leaves it looking squeezed, like a disappointed half of a grander edifice. Thus the long, more casual westerly frontage with its not-quite-matching corner towers, seems to be happier, less forced, despite its appearing to sit on a giant podium of very un-Classical “retail-commercial.” 

In total contrast, the more severe, less nostalgic Touriel Building, design by Assembly Architects, at 2004 University Ave. fits comfortably into its strident setting. Its main frontage on the avenue manages to look striking and elegant without the aid of round-headed windows, red-titled roof or rusticated base (pretend heavy masonry). Even contextually, it one-ups the Shattuck Square building. Set off against a handsome deep-green wall, the narrow boards of the projecting window-bays nicely echo the tan brickwork of the old building immediately east. 

Round the corner, set back from MIlvia, the long facade facing the bay is a novel composition of lively red stucco and more wood boarding, enhanced by a system of horizontal sliding exterior shutters that should create an ever-changing visual reading of this sunny westerly frontage. Extroverted and to some eyes brash, time will soon soften this bold wall. The red will gently fade, and the extensive boarding weather, as wood always does. Meanwhile, the odd-looking wire fencing up on the roof, designed to receive flowering vines, will eventually add a crown of vegetation. 

In the face of all this imaginative creating, it feels almost unbearable that most of the lowest-level apartments on this bay-view side look out at a strip of sky and the back wall of Au Coquelet, while many of the east-facing units are 15 feet from a old blank masonry wall. And the Shattuck Square apartments are as bad if not worse. For an architectural thrill, stand across from University Avenue from Peterson’s seductive Palladian facade, and notice how the building’s easterly wall angles back from the front corner, running closer and closer to the brick side of the old Acheson Medical Building until it passes the latter’s back corner a medieval-handshake away. Now stroll around to the north end off Berkeley Way, and observe how new apartment windows enjoy a close-up view of UC Press’s uninspiring back. As for the long westerly side, it’s much the same condition as the bottom-level apartments on Milvia—no civilized view. 

Regarding this whole question of sub-standard “basement apartments” in new, architecturally significant buildings, I hear a surprising number of comments to the effect that, after a hard day on the campus, most students will close the curtains and hit the books. Similarly, young working couples will stagger in exhausted, roll down the blinds, and watch TV. These seem cynical assumptions by people who, in many cases, inhabit single family houses with windows on all sides and views of the garden if not the bay. One suspects here an elitist attitude towards apartment dwellers, strangely mixed with passionate support of ‘smart growth,’ here meaning more apartments close to BART. 

What then can be done to prevent this anomaly of architectural quality and sub-standard units? Two ideas come to mind, one optimistic and long-term, the other effective immediately. First, the city could introduce design-studies of problem sites in the central district where apartment building has happened or could happen. These could take the form of competitions that would, among other benefits, show off the work of local designers. The block of the Gaia Building (also a Panoramic Interests project, completed in 2001, at 2116 Allston Way) would make a good first study. A more drastic step, but one that could yield faster results, would be to introduce new rules requiring, along with light, ventilation, etc., a tolerable view or outlook for main living areas, whether panorama, street scene, or quiet garden court. 

Strictly applied, the second concept would stop some developers dead in their tracks, driving them out of the denser parts of downtown, and this would be a great blessing. Instead of it becoming the over-built westerly edge of a patently over-built campus, this oddly-laid out old area between, say, Hearst and Durant avenues, could become a delightful, pedestrian friendly district of low- to medium-height buildings clustered around interior garden courts. Trumpetvine Court, connecting Shattuck Avenue and Allston Way, is a good living demonstration. 

Throughout the greater downtown-area this ‘mini-park’ concept still applies. More and bigger structures have appeared—the Fine Arts Building at 2471 Shattuck Ave.—or will soon appear—the nine-story Seagate apartments on Center Street—further increasing the need for quiet public open-space removed from the frenetic traffic of the streets.