Gaudy Adieu Planned for Doomed UC Print Plant

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 09, 2007

The University Press Building—UC Berkeley’s doomed downtown landmark—will be granted one last fling before the wrecking ball comes. 

Slated for demolition to make way for a new university art museum and Pacific Film Archive building, the 1939 New Deal Moderne structure may soon serve as a projection screen for the digital animations of a trio of San Francisco artists whose work has made them Internet celebrities. 

The notion was floated last week to members of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). 

Creators of works that float in the aesthetic ether somewhere between Hollywood “high concept” and sixties-era Happenings, Rebar’s highest-profile project turned parking spaces into sod-paved metered micro-parks.  

A single mention of that project on the popular website boingboing.net drew five million hits to their website in one 24-hour period. Their work was back on boingboing three months later, featuring a new project in New Mexico. 

Lately, Rebar’s been featured in cyberspace and newsprint for another, edgier bit of high concept performance art—an artistic exercise designed to determine just what is public space. 

In an action that will certainly find some resonance with a number of Berkeley development critics, Rebar launched actions called COMMONspace, to test the limits of a San Francisco density bonus regulation. 

In exchange for creating “privately owned public open spaces” (POPOS), San Francisco builders can receive bonuses allowing them to build bigger buildings. But just how public is the space that results? Rebar teamed up with Snap Out Of It (SOOI), a performance troupe, to stage a series of events to find out. 

“We are staging the events to test implicit social codes and explicit government regulations,” said Blaine Merker, one of three black-shirted Rebar members who appeared at the Landmarks Preservation Commission last Thursday. 

One thing they’ve learned already is that owners don’t look kindly on folks who use their spaces to fly kites, one of the events staged by Rebar and SOOI in a San Francisco POPOS. “We were shut down,” said Merker as a photo of the event was displayed on-screen. 

BAM/PFA Deputy Director David Wheelan, said Rebar is the first of what is proposed to be a series of uses of a building which is currently “not making a major contribution to the vitality of downtown. 

“BAM proposes interim uses without physical alteration” to the structure, he said. 

“As we understand it, our job is to charge the site with potential that will bridge campus and community,” said Merker. 

One possibility, Whelan said, is to treat the building’s surface as an interactive medium “to communicate and alter the self-awareness of people passing by.” 

The plant is at the northwest corner of Center and Oxford streets. The white concrete structure witnessed the printing of the original copies of the United Nations Charter in 1945 for the signatures of delegates gathered in San Francisco in for the U.N.’s founding. The LPC declared the building a city landmark on June 7, 2004, after the university had announced its intent to build a new museum at the site. 

“Another concept is using these fantastic glass block windows as projection surface,” said Rebar’s Matthew Passmore. “It’s a fantastic way to just awaken the building,” he said.  

One possibility is to allow passers-by to enter text from Palm Pilots that would be projected onto the building’s surface—either unaltered or in combination with text entered by others.  

“The third component is setting the stage for habituation of the site,” said John Bela, the third member of Rebar’s team. 

Examples displayed ranged from the simple—pulsing lights—to the everyday—the image of a painter with a roller apparently in the act of blocking out the view—to the existentially absurd—a pair of divers swimming toward the blocks. 

Rebar’s work would be only the first in a series of programs designed to use the building as a medium during the two to three years the structure remains before demolition, said Wheelan. 

“It’s a landmark. There’ll be a lot of objection to tearing it down,” said LPC member Fran Packard. 

“Be careful what you wish for,” said Chair Robert Johnson. “If you raise the profile of the building, you’ll raise the profile of the building—and you’ll hear about it down the line.” 

“We feel the pride and the responsibility to promote the museum’s use,” said Wheelan, acknowledging that “we do worry” about the impact. 

Commissioner Lesley Emmington cautioned Wheelan that merchants on Center Street have worked hard to create an ambiance for the streetscape and might worry at changes that threatened it. 

“You need to consult the merchants across the street,” added Johnson, adding that “the idea of images in the windows could be very exciting.” 

Emmington worried that the projectors might consume excess electricity at a time of growing emphasis on conservation, and Packard suggested the use of LEDs. 

“A solar array could be an element,” said Commissioner Steven WInkel. 

For another look at Rebar, see their website at www.rebargroup.net. 

The three members of Rebar were smiling as they packed up their gear.