An Architectural Mixed Bag: Shock and Awe On UC South Campus By JOHN KENYON

Special to the Planet
Friday April 01, 2005

If you’d like a preview of the university’s expanded future—the big dog that already wags the tail that is Berkeley, drive or walk up to Channing Way and Bowditch, stand on the end of the grand old Anna Head site, and take in the dramatic transformation from a sea of boring temporaries to gleaming, state-of-the-art architecture. 

Immediately across the street sits Crossroads, the spanking new Student Dining Facility, a dazzling assemblage of architectonic shapes and effects, backed-up by the larger mass of Residential and Student Services to make one assertive all-or-nothing statement. Left and ahead, further up Channing, a huge new wall of strident colors and dramatic forms announces just-completed residential in-fill on the old late ‘50s student dormitory sites. Finally turn around and enjoy the equally new but refreshingly low-key residential complex across Channing immediately south of Bowditch, an attractive composition of three to four story wood-shingled pavilions that seems positively therapeutic after the above shock and awe. 

If you haven’t much followed Cal’s grand designs, you might not know that these dramatic developments are the result of seemingly rational planning that ranks central control, economic advantage and seismic safety way above gentle change. Not necessarily bad in the right location, such military planning has been particularly destructive here, in this vulnerable strip of Southside, a shared UC and city environment graced with many distinguished buildings, among them Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science Church, and his Town and Gown Club, Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club and Baptist Seminary, and in more recent time Joseph Esherick’s graceful YWCA, and Mario Ciampi’s University Art Museum. 

The above mentioned late ‘50s dormitories immediately below College Avenue were the first big university assault on this gentle neighborhood. Rapidly increasing enrollment, plus pressure from parents for UC-provided accommodation, led in 1956 to a design competition, won by the San Francisco firm of Warneke and Associates. Their solution, strongly influenced by European Modern Movement apartment buildings, consisted of two superblocks, each with four identical nine-story towers pushed out to the corners, leaving the center areas free for playful, low-rise dining pavilions with lavishly landscaped garden-terraces. Initially appealing as a concept—toylike models usually are—these bland but invasive buildings amounted to a disruptive assault on the old tree-lined streets, shingled villas, and gracious community structures. Forty-five years later, it still jars the senses to see those mediocre towers making an uninvited backdrop to Maybeck’s splendid church. 

Now alas, the invasion has intensified. Justified by a bigger-than-ever student population, a stronger than ever concern for seismic safety, and buildable land free from City of Berkeley interference, the university’s “Underhill Plan” has rumbled into action. The landscaped dining rooms, the nicest feature of these superblocks, have been demolished, and replaced by residential in-fill structures designed to co-exist with the Warneke towers. Upper Durant and Dwight Way feel walled-in, the original neighborhood openness is lost, and the on-site density is 50 percent higher than that of Manhattan! 

Simultaneously, demolition of the dining rooms has led to the creation of a long-desired central restaurant facility on the nearby site of the temporaries, while the displaced activities housed in those dismal huts have found a more glamorous home in a big new Residential and Student Services Building. Presumably, for lack of space and seismic advantage, these two very different facilities have been piggy-backed into one strange architectural tour-de-force—the Jewel in the Crown of the Underhill Empire! 

When we recoil from such dramatic change, we tend to blame the architects, but in reality those hard-working professionals have little power to control development. Usually both program and site are handed to them by others, and the most they can do is make the buildings work well and look interesting. 

“Interesting” if not downright novel describes the residential infill designed by EHDD, Joe Esherick’s old firm in San Francisco. More like apartments than traditional dormitories, the new buildings step-up from four to eight stories between the old nine-floor towers, leaving a comfortable gap at their low end, and at the high end, almost joining the existing structures. The two blocks step-up in opposite directions, creating pleasing variety within the garden court. To further emphasize this novel stepping, the facades are treated almost like independent buildings, differentiated by bold color—orange, soft yellow, pale green, deep blue, white— and enlivened at their upper levels by bold, projecting metal-clas window bays. Most striking here is the powerful contrast between the workday double-hung windows and the high tech boxed-out bays. Indeed, despite their looking at fist glance like something facing the harbor in Rotterdam, they still at heart possess a certain non-slick Bay Area character. 

This homey quality is particularly successful from inside the new enclosed gardens, the first of which, between Haste and Dwight, is now completed and accessible to the public. This elegant landscaped court, just below sidewalk level at the College Avenue end, is actually a lid covering a big basement of impressive student amenities—recreation and music lounges, study areas, computer center, etc.—all pleasantly daylit around the perimeter, where glass walls look out at stands of bamboo. Up at garden level, surrounded by handsome paving, raised planters containing infant trees will soon overflow with groundcover and flowering bushes, while one area with deeper soil already nurtures a stand of redwoods. Big stainless steel ventilators add a nautical touch. Two matching little steel-framed pavilions shelter bicycles and wood decks. In total contract to the “English Romantic Landscape” of the original UC campus, this is a truly modern garden, an integral part of the architecture rather than a setting for it. 

At present the new frontages on Channing Way and Haste face each other across an enormous hole in the ground, site of a future three-level parking structure with a recreational field on top. Preliminary designs show a park-like expanse, stepping gently down from an expanded landscaped sidewalk at College Avenue to the swathe of planting already installed below the east front to the new Student Affairs Building. This huge, visually-public open space, defined on three sides by new buildings, deserved development by world-class designers. If most of it must remain rather two-dimensional, except for street trees along the flanking avenues, there could be at least bold, vine covered loggias across the step-down points, particularly at the area’s westerly end, which at this juncture seem insufficiently dramatized by architecture. 

What a pity, after all this expensive effort, that the building which forms the back half of the ambitious complex fronting Bowditch should appear so unheroic on its long easterly front—in urban design terms, not a success. 

The new facility does come alive however at its northerly end. This main entrance facade, set back from Channing, is easily the most elegant and understated part of the whole twin complex, while the office-levels within, with their spacious lounges, splendid views and state-of-the-art air conditioning, are as luxurious a work setting as any corporate management person could desire. 

As for the much-trumpeted Central Dining Facility next door, understated is the one thing it is not. Novel and impressive on first encounter, the trendy but confused design puzzles and irritates on closer inspection. Look at it carefully from across Bowditch. Set against the long more sober backdrop of Student Services, two glassy pavilions with dramatically swooping roofs are separated by a low connecting structure that projects forward almost to the sidewalk, enclosing on its left a raised garden-terrace and the building’s main entrance. Further south along Bowditch, immediately past the second pavilion, another projecting “box” completes the strung-out frontage. The curved roofs shelter separate dining halls, the lower structure houses kitchens, cafeteria-counters, etc. while white box-like projections contain a smaller dining room and a future coffee chop. 

There’s something dramatically appealing about the white cubist cutout set against the green glass of the corner dining hall, the crossways opposition of curving roofs, and the way the long frontage jogs around big existing redwoods. In the merged Los Angeles Practices of Cannon-Dworsky, some courageous designer tried. Perhaps others failed to guide this playful vision into a real-live good building. We’ll never know. 

For flaws detract on all sides. The white wall of the “coffee chop” collides clumsily into the elegant glass grid instead of sliding past it. The terrace is a confusion of stairs, railings and a ramp masked by flimsy looking wood boards. An impressive vine trellis nearby supports neither a vine nor a planter for a future one. At Channing and Bowditch, what should be a friendly public corner seems barricaded by huge stone planters reminiscent of some anti-tank barrier, while the dining hall’s glassy north side is marred by yet more baffling boxes. 

As for the Student Affairs building being a backdrop to the more flamboyant dining hall, its flimsy sunshade “eyebrow,” colliding visually with the over-thick fascia of the big curved roof, creates even more chaos. Any one of John Galen Howard’s original campus buildings has a strength and simplicity way beyond this picturesque assemblage, which, in spite of acres of glass, reveals almost nothing of the noisy, youthful activity within. It’s to be fervently hoped that, if built, the proposed joint UC-City hotel, conference center and art museum on the edge of Shattuck Square will be equally bold, equally lively, but better. 

The last of these three Underhill projects, the Channing-Bowditch Apartments facing the north side of Anna Head, couldn’t be more different that the flawed “Masterpiece” described above. An impressive exercise in the flexible and ever-functional Shingle Style—the residential Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1900s, it looks at first glance to have been designed in 1901 and built 95 years later. Under big sheltering roofs, three-story wings project toward the street from a long four-level spine, creating pleasant shady courts in-between. The design ‘vocabulary’ is very familiar, and easier to handle than the more dramatic ‘all-glass-all-blank’ collisions of the dining commons. 

Traditional features dominate—generous overhangs with exposed rafters, cozily-enclosed balconies, and the old “alpine chalet” device of a recessed under-the-eaves attic. The exterior colors are a refreshing modern touch. Bold orange at the base, dark blue and sea-green elements above, and lots of white trim, all help to enliven the bland stained shingles that will weather over time to a darker more gutsy tone. 

Sad to say, in the presence of all this happy creating, the repetition throughout of small ungenerous double-hung windows diminishes much of the poetry. The designers have made a heroic effort to achieve some variety, to group, combine or space-out these prosaic “high-performance” openings, now mandated by the university for all its residential projects, yet they still look sadly institutional compared with the huge studio-windows and welcoming casements of the original full-blown Shingle Style. 

Michael Pyatok, the project’s talented name-architect, seems to have become the darling of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the conservation brigade, thus specially useful to the PR-conscious bureaucrats of UC. His gently retro student dorms are better than bad modern any day, yet I can’t help wondering how his very competent design-team would have handled the more prestigious, higher budget statement across the corner. I’d love to see them given such a chance!?