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UC Hires Architect for Downtown Museums

By Richard Brenneman
Friday September 29, 2006

They came, they watched, they listened, they noshed, and for the most part, they liked. 

The occasion was the beginning of what promises to be a full-court press by UC officials and boosters as they seek funds and approval for “a place where ideas run free and wild,” a $120 million complex in the heart of downtown Berkeley. 

The place so described by trustee Jane Metcalfe is the new home of the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), which if all goes as planned, will begin rising in the eastern half of one city block between Center and Addison Streets and Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street. 

If all goes as planned, the new facility will open its doors in five years. 

The architect picked to design the new structure is Toyo Ito of Tokyo, chosen from among the 140 applicants who responded from six continents, said Director Kevin E. Consey. 

Known for his highly conceptual and often whimsical designs, Ito “is a world class architect known for his sensitive environmentally conscious designs” that incorporate innovative technology, said Noel Nellis, president of the BAM/PFA Board of Trustees. 

Ito’s designs, featured on the Internet at, are anything but conventional and would create a radical departure from the otherwise relatively sedate character of downtown Berkeley. 

His design, Nellis said, “will indeed transform the museum and the community in the process.” 

“I am hoping the citizens of Berkeley will be so excited you will open up your wallets and help it out, because it’s going to do a lot of good for your community,” said Barclay Simpson, the 85-year-old Orinda manufacturer who has the deepest pockets of the museum’s financial angels. 

Chair of the board of trustees, Simpson said “this is one project that it is going to be very difficult for Berkleyans to object to.” Laughter followed. 


Praises sung 

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of many planned to win over the hearts, minds and wallets of Berkeley residents. 

And there were, indeed, few discouraging words to be heard Tuesday. 

“Without seeing the details, I’d say it looks like it would be a fabulous addition to the downtown,” said Mayor Tom Bates, who arrived late for the meeting. 

“This is a great project,” said real estate broker and developer John Gordon. “I was in a focus group on the project three years ago, and I like it.” 

“I hope it will do for downtown Berkeley what Frank Gehry’s museum did for Bilbao,” said developer Patrick Kennedy, referring to the celebrated design for the Guggenheim Museum in that Spanish city—a strikingly modern metal-clad structure that has become a major tourist attraction. 

Tuesday morning’s meeting included a video tour of one of his structures, the Mediatheque in Sendai, Japan. 

The only sour note was sounded by Becky O’Malley, executive editor of the Daily Planet, who mused at the meeting that Ito’s “trendy high concept style” could grow old fast. 

The 65-year-old Ito “is far from a trendy type of person,” Consey said, adding that Ito was known for creating sustainable designs. 

O’Malley also asked why the existing landmarked UC Press building couldn’t be retrofitted and used for the museum and archive. Consey said the costs of retrofits were “25 percent to 50 percent more expensive than new construction.” 


Global search 

Tuesday’s meeting was a critical moment in a lengthy development process, Consey said. 

“We have had a long and continuing dialog with interest groups that began three years ago,” he said. “We have had 45 focus groups, including citizens of Berkeley, people from the university and other groups.” 

The result was a detailed program statement that was used as the basis for recruiting an architect. 

That process began with solicitations for suggestions to about 100 art museum directors, symphony directors and cultural leaders around the country. Then letters were sent to architects to see if they wanted to compete, drawing more than 140 responses, Consey said. 

Two committees winnowed the candidates down to an eventual five, four of them from Japan. Committee members visited each of the five in their studios and toured some of their buildings. 

Then a final three were summoned for final interviews and “forced to walk around downtown Berkeley,” Consey said, drawing laughter from the audience. 

With Ito’s selection, museum officials are now choosing a licensed California architect, as required by state law, who will serve as Ito’s technical supervisor. During the application period which closed Monday, 25 Bay Area firms submitted letters of intent, and the final choice will be made at the end of October. 

Consey said Ito likes to work by walking the streets of the communities where his designs will be built. 

“We imagine there will be periods of time where we see him sitting in the Bank of America parking lot, or sitting in a restaurant across the street from the site, thinking about how the building will relate to its surroundings,” he said. 


Seismic, green issues 

The primary impetus for the new structure was a campus seismic survey that determined the existing museum and PFA complex on Bancroft was unsafe and “will probably collapse like Legos falling apart” in the event of a major quake, Metcalfe said. 

The widely lauded design, created by Bay Area architect Mario Ciampi, is featured in many texts. 

Ito is familiar with seismic issues in part because Japan is one of the world’s most seismically active nations, Consey said. 

He is also a specialist in sustainable, green buildings—structures that incorporate environmentally friendly materials and embody energy conserving materials and principles. 

One possible obstacle that may prevent the structure from winning the highest level of environmental certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is the need for energy intensive climate controls essential for preserving the delicate artwork and films the complex will house, Consey said. 

Still, Consey promised, the new complex “will be the greenest art museum and film archive in the United States.” 


Heavy hitters 

The BAM/PFA board includes some of the Bay Area’s financially heavier hitters, a critical fact given that all funds for the project must come from private donors and grants. 

To date, the board has raised about $40 million. 

Metcalfe is co-founder—with partner Louis Rossetto—of Wired magazine and now heads with Rossetto a Berkeley-based investment firm specializing in real estate, media and technology. 

Nellis is a partner in Orrick, an international law firm based in San Francisco that specializes in arranging the finances of global real estate deals. He also serves as an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at UCB’s Haas School of Business. 

Board President Simpson is chair and 10 percent owner of Simpson Manufacturing, a Dublin-based international firm which netted $846 million in sales last year. He also owns an art gallery and is a major patron of arts schools and student scholarships.