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Visions of a Future Downtown: An Appraisal

By John Kenyon
Friday May 04, 2007

Ascend into central Berkeley via the steep escalator of subterranean BART, and you are met with a decidedly uncivic scene. People of every age and condition seem intent solely on crossing Center Street or Shattuck Avenue. You can also squeeze past a smaller, more youthful crowd waiting for the bus along the BART plaza edge or just hanging out. 

Around this never-ending collision between traffic, pedestrians, students and street-people, the greater urban setting is not inspiring. The BART drum you’ve just emerged from looks like a leftover from the German defenses of Normandy, while the so-called “Power Bar Building” immediately behind is 1960’s “curtain wall” at its worst. Looking east across the vehicular wasteland, the built-up frontage of Shattuck Square is a stylistic mish-mash, made worse by the single-story bank at its south end, built as a stopgap during Berkeley’s Late ‘60s “Blacklisted” period, after the Bank of America gave up on its intended 12-story tower. 

The chief virtue of this strangely suburban corner is the way it combines with Center Street itself to allow an almost unblocked view of the great dome of eucalyptus, and the revered, still-splendid Campanile. Meanwhile, in the immediate vicinity of the BART rotunda, only one older building, the handsome Wells Fargo Tower, sets an elegant standard for future development of any consequence. 

Such development now seems in the offing, for after months of deep discussion and disagreement between DAPAC—the Down-town Area Planning Advisory Committee—and the combined planning establishments of Cal and the City of Berkeley, a surprising level of accord appears to have been reached. The remaking of Center Street from Shattuck Square to Oxford Street, patently the most natural connector between Town and Gown, is almost a work-in-progress. 

For readers who have not much followed this promising planning, a brief summary might be useful. Two major new structures will transform the north side of Center Street—a university-sponsored conference hotel facing Shattuck Square, and behind it, off Oxford Street, the relocated University Art Museum, currently still at 2626 Bancroft Way. 

Both buildings will occupy a new traffic-free plaza created from a pedestrianized Center Street and extending north between them. A 19-story condominium tower attached to the hotel’s easterly face will share the parklike terrain. Altogether a grand program! 

The “four-star” hotel, a six-story leisure-related facility with a visible roof garden and at least two public facades, should make a splendid new southerly end to the Shattuck Square frontage, further dramatized by the tall tower behind. In contrast to this assertive corner, novel, yet tied visually to the greater downtown, the new Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will be an altogether freer entity. 

Currently being designed by Toyo Ito, an internationally known Japanese architect, and enhanced by an almost car-free setting, it cannot help but be a popular destination. 

As for the plaza itself, there has been passionate argument over the long-cherished idea of unearthing Strawberry Creek to restore “underlying nature” to the heart of downtown. It is a bold concept, and very “Berkeley,” but here, on what often will be a crowded pedestrian route, there are problems of dimension, danger and maintenance. 

One wonders how many people realize that on the UC campus, starting immediately across Oxford Street, there is approximately a mile of beautifully landscaped natural creek waiting to be strolled along and enjoyed. A far cry from a few yards of railed-off “demonstration nature” in the middle of a busy mall. 

As future users of all this expansive transformation, we might well be concerned about the quality of the end result. Two major buildings are already being designed with the university as principal client and promoter on a site it already owns. Will this dramatic little extension of the campus feel like “ours” or “theirs”? 

Though no lover of the Cal juggernaut and its brutal invasion of the Southside, I must admit to feeling considerable relief that here, the university is calling the shots. 

Imagine for one unnerving moment the task of selecting an architect for the new museum being left to a Berkeley citizen’s committee. 

Would it have been brave enough or united enough to choose a radical Asian modernist that nobody here had ever heard of? 

In the event, the university or its particular in-group was bolder that anybody could have dared to predict in selecting, not a Corbusier-inspired classicist like Richard Meier or a computer-happy Expressionist like Frank Gehry, but a serious inventive designer whose non-flamboyant approach should suit perfectly the hemmed-in restricted site. 

Perhaps the most interesting program suggestion made so far was incorporation of the existing University Press buildings, already listed a City of Berkeley landmark, into a strangely hybrid design on the grounds that the original signatory copies of the United Nations Charter were printed there in 1945. 

Understandably, the university rejected this oddly non-architectural concept, for in their eyes moving the new facility into the real public domain on an already-owned site close to BART, and giving a world-renowned architect carte blanche, will put the new facility—expected visitors 300,000 per year—into the DeYoung class, though let us hope that Berkeley’s new pride and joy will be more welcoming than that derelict aircraft-carrier in Golden Gate Park! 

At this juncture the future appearance of Ito’s creation is largely guesswork, though one might assume from his other designs that an open transparent look is likely, dramatically demonstrated by the architect’s seven-story Mediatheque in Sendai, northern Japan. 

Perhaps a more important question is how the building will look from above, for many windows on the east side of the hotel and in the 19-story tower will look directly down on the—probably—flat top, at least part of which could be a verdant roof garden. 

The future hotel is an altogether different case. Promoted by independent developers with oversight from both the university and the city, the building is currently being designed by the Cambridge Seven, an architectural collaborative in Boston. Judging from the images on the firm’s website, their work is interesting, professional and varied. 

We are not dealing here with an architectural superstar whose building will be recognizably Miesian or Calatravan, but with a group of semi-autonomous designers whose work varies greatly depending on location, program and personality. 

A wildlife museum will look woodsy and barnlike, a railway museum will be reminiscent of a toy train, and a science block appropriately “high tech.” 

Thus they tend to be the answer to a fussy, controlling-client’s prayer, particularly if the client is Berkeley! One can be quite sure that they have already had an earful of demands and requests that the new structure fit in with our “historic” downtown, whatever style that might be. 

We’re in serious danger here of intimidating the project architect, if not the whole “Seven,” into trying too hard to please a distant opinionated community and winding up with a pastiche of Maybeck trellises, Julia Morgan Gothic tracery and red “Spanish” tiles. It would be safer to stick with more basic suggestions—having in mind maximum contrast—such as: “Solid wall should dominate over glass.” 

One can visualize a building on that strategic corner that extends the UC Berkeley campus rather than matching downtown. If the budget doesn’t run to the lovely Sierra Granite of Howard’s early masterworks, they could at least substitute the high quality concrete of Koshland Hall. 

Indeed, Koshland’s elegant yet friendly Teaching Building facing that big lawn gives a few useful clues to possible hotel character. So, oddly enough, does the splendid twin-towered Federal Building in downtown Oakland, with its clever interplay of windows and heavy structure. 

My desire to connect John Galen Howard with the new hotel becomes more intriguing on discovering that, in 1907, he designed for this same site a handsome six-story building for the Berkeley National Bank, with his own office on the top floor. This non-academic Chicago-style structure made a distinguished corner, hardly likely to be improved upon by our imminent replacement. 

The third element, quite equal in importance to the new buildings sitting on it, is the future pedestrian plaza. 

In addition to the pleasing vision of a Center Street parklike and car-free, there’s an opportunity here to extend the non-car terrain northward between the museum and the hotel to Addison, and beyond by a pedestrian path to Walnut north of University Avenue, there to link up with a Walnut extension across the big site formerly occupied by California Health Services. 

The negative side of this heady concept is the unopposed intrusion of automobiles into an otherwise calm scene. 

Inevitably, there will be traffic access to the hotel’s south and east frontages, while access from Shattuck Square into the underground garage will be predictably unromantic! Nevertheless, with clever design, pedestrians and garden can still dominate the terrain. 

Most of the tree planting on the paved areas will be urban in character, perhaps similar to the heavily pruned plane trees of Sproul Plaza, but a more playful atmosphere could prevail in the private yet visually-connected sculpture garden we might expect outside the museum cafe, which could also contain a “waterfall-canal” comparable to the one in Ginko Court on the Clark Kerr Campus. 

The hotel architects must also make sure that their promised roof garden is clearly visible from nearby ground-level. A little “oasis” in the desert of downtown Berkeley will be very welcome, and will also signal the expanding University’s benign intentions toward its worried host community.