Arts Listings

The Battle for Good Modern Design on Campus

By John Kenyon Special to the Planet
Friday November 24, 2006

The splendid early buildings of UC Berkeley’s campus are more radical than first appears. California Hall from 1905, the first unit of John Galen Howard’s Beaux Arts ensemble, looks solidly traditional, yet one of its main features is an enormous skylight that illuminates not only the big attic, but, via a glass floor, an elegant atrium below. There was nothing more truly modern than this until the galleries-hanging-in-space of Mario Campi’s 1970 art museum. 

Yet in its profound stylistic influence on future campus development, Howard’s masterful cluster was and still is a two-edged sword, overshadowing all subsequent attempts to continue the grand Neo-Classical manner so fervently favored for WASP scholarly life. Arthur Brown’s buildings through the ’30s and early ’40s are joyless by comparison, while his Sproul Hall of 1941, self-important but dull, seems to signal an architectural dead end. 

And despite even the trauma of World War II, this “Classical” obsession with symmetry, rows of “dignified” windows and stone, under the mandatory red-tile roof, lingered on for another half-century, as demonstrated by bland Dwinelle of 1952, boring Barrows of 1964, and desperately conforming Tan Hall of 1998. Worse, this respectability crusade is still alive in the naive “guidelines” and seductive watercolor visualizations of the 2002 Long Range Development Plan, which should be re-titled “Red Roofs in the Sunset.” 

In the face of this persisting timidity, we can be thankful for the great architectural breakthrough achieved by Wurster Hall and the Student Center, between 1959 and 1968, thanks largely to Dean Wurster and his gifted architect-colleagues. A competition won by Hardison and De Mars in 1957, resulted in the familiar four-building complex at the top of Telegraph. For elegant details, it doesn’t compare with, say, Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Tech., but as lively urban design, the ensemble is a success. Wrapped around by a giant arcade that irreverently echoes the above “Classical” tradition, King Student Union is a bizarre affair, but an effective contrast with dignified Zellerbach. The biggest blow so far to this cheerful area is the removal of the main Dining Commons to Channing and Bowditch, leaving the long playful north wing without a vibrant public purpose. 

Wurster Hall, the other half of this ’60s breakthrough, answers that longing many of us felt for a great new artifact that would stand symbolic comparison with Howard’s masterful early works. In 1959, as part of his mandate to expand Architecture into Environmental Design, Dean Wurster was entrusted with the creation of that very thing. 

His project team: De Mars, Olsen, Esherick and Hardison, worked in productive harmony, Esherick eventually becoming lead-designer, with Wurster as a near-perfect “client.”  

Responding to the old master’s request for a non-slick workshop of a building, Esherick and Co. managed to produce a Bay Area original—a Corbusier-inspired complex cranked around a courtyard and dramatized with a Constructivist tower. Concrete sun-control “eyebrows” replaced classical ornament. The building is best seen from the top end of College Avenue, where the big white grid with its assertive tower seems to glide, dreamlike, from behind a huge clump of eucalyptus. 

Not quite on, or of, the academic campus, the delightfully uninhibited Art Museum of 1970, seemed to some of us the final triumph of no-holds-barred modernism at UC Berkeley. Designed by San Francisco-born architect Mario Campi, selected by a national competition, the building is as much an art object as its frequently disturbing contents. With its unadorned concrete structure, ingenious top-lighting and wildly acrobatic ramps leading up to claustrophobic galleries, the museum offers a dramatic variety of settings, equally welcome to a Rothko, a Maillart nude, or an installation of neon tubes. 

All this cantilevered hubris has invited the present tragic impasse—an uncertain future, possible demolition, and a humiliating, almost comic propping-up of the daring structure, inside and out, but the situation is not without hope. Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s tireless researcher, John English, is currently preparing an application to get this novel building safely onto the National Register of Historic Places, which should much improve its chances of dignified survival. 

Sad to say, this exciting ’60s breakthrough into Modernism didn’t guarantee quality. In 1971, Evans Hall, an up-to-date but charmless blockbuster, was sited plonk on the axis of the revered Central Glade. Thirteen years later a big, ambitious Sports Facility, windowless on its public side, was shoehorned into a tight space between the Haas Baseball field and Bancroft Way, walling off a stretch of the university’s most eventful edge.  

As if to demonstrate how even “name” architects can become unnerved at the prospect of contributing something appropriate to our revered campus, we have Soda Hall, the College of Engineering’s Computer Science building, designed in the early ’90s by Edward Barnes of New York in collaboration with locally admired Anshen and Allen. 

Sited on busy sideways—sloping Hearst between La Conte and stern-visaged Etcheverry Hall, the basic arrangement is not at all “Classical.” The five-story building, entered from the sides into a mid-block atrium, steps down at the back to gently merge with residential Northside, leaving a problematic campus-facing frontage on Hearst. 

Understandably, the architects decided to liven it up by recessing the top two floors behind a Piano Nobile or sheltered deck, but here, the Designer’s Muse seems to have abandoned them! Instead of some delicate “recall” of the long vine trellis below, they concocted a massive and gloomy arcade reminiscent of an imaginary Piranesi prison, then covered the whole edifice with green mottled tiles that would look—they claimed—“less industrial” to the bucolic neighbors across Ridge Road. 

This perverse avoidance of an appropriately “high-tech” image for a facility sometimes described as a “supercomputer,” strangely parallels the lavish and ambitious Haas School of business, completed just a year later to—apparently—evoke an Arts and Crafts resort hotel. Designed by boldly eclectic Charles Moore, the complex is an architectural anomaly, for while it seems on the surface perfectly reasonable to reintroduce the informal, largely residential Shingle Style that was brought to this same campus by John Galen Howard in 1904 for inexpensive “temporaries,” Moore’s theatrical entrance—arches and stiffly clustered windows—belie the humble informality of earlier precedents such as the “Ark,” Cloyne Court, Anna Head, or even the Foothill student housing of 1991. Haas feels pompous by comparison. 

Perhaps we should be relieved that on the important site east of the Hearst Mining Circle, Stanley Hall, the new, almost completed Biosciences Facility, is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but just plain modern! The Portland architectural firm of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca has made a valiant effort to lessen the impact of this 285,000 square-foot pile of laboratories by projecting the three lowest levels forward as a discrete entrance-facade that will not overpower the much loved south front of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. 

Rising above and behind this “podium,” the eight-story mass has been fragmented into separated pieces of wall, white against green, like a huge rectilinear sculpture. The white cladding contains the windows, while the swimming-pool green metal “shingles” act as both balustrades and as the building’s windowless top. Perhaps they’ve overdone the playful art-making, but at this stage of raw brand-newness, it’s a bit unwise to judge. Meanwhile we can look forward to the restoration of the handsome reflecting pool and its accompanying landscaping, while noting the crucial importance of big mature trees to tame our taller, bulkier buildings. 

It’s both fascinating and disturbing that the newest completed architectural “statement” on the UC Campus—the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library of 2004, is such a dramatic contrast with the above bland giant. Stanley, with its myriad traditional windows and cheerful extroverted color could easily pass as a vaguely Art Deco city hotel. The music library, a tenth the size, could only be “something special.” 

Most designers would have tried to make it an obvious third element of Gardner Daily’s 1958 two-building complex. Instead the architects, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam of Atlanta, opted for glorious independence. The novel green slate “shingles” that cover the exterior relate nicely to the terra-cotta colored stucco of Dailey’s undramatic buildings, but beyond that, the strange little pavilion stands in total contrast to just about everything around. Elegantly boxed-out windows, some exposed, some lurking behind dense louvers and others deeply recessed, play against tall glass slots in a game of precarious balance exacerbated by the willfully varied grid of slate panels. 

There’s no obvious front or back other than the odd tilting up of the roof toward the building’s southeast corner. Puzzled by the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of the windows, you walk inside, and—big surprise—everything seems orderly and rational and very elegant. A further surprise is the dramatic separation of the relatively delicate box from the gutsy, white painted brace-framing, here featured as an integral part of the architecture. 

So with this eccentric little library that even makes Bartok seem “old world,” we can say that “cutting edge” 21st century architecture has finally arrived on our campus. At least the greater world seem to think so, for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam have all of four projects to date in the prestigious Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. 

A little Auden poem, written in 1929, ends with this gentle request: “Look shining on / New styles of architecture, a change of heart.”