Arts & Events

Architecture Review: Flashy Architecture and Bad Urbanism at the Berkeley Art Museum

By Charles Siegel
Sunday September 18, 2011 - 06:21:00 PM

The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro have unveiled their design for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) on Oxford Street between Center and Addison. They were required to keep the old UC Printing Plant, and they have added a blob-shaped building coated with zinc.

The new addition is in the avant-gardist style that has been typical of museums since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao in 1997. The Guggenheim looks like abstract art of the 1920s and is coated with titanium. It does not work very well as a museum - some visitors say it gives them vertigo - but it was so new, so different, and so shiny that it drew large numbers of gaping tourists to Bilbao.

Avant-garde architects are like teenagers who dye their hair purple to be different from everyone else, who consider themselves very original but obviously are just imitating the cool kids in their clique. Likewise, the designers of BAM/PFA consider its zinc facade very original but obviously are just imitating Gehry’s titanium.

The inept urbanism of BAM/PFA is much worse than its flashy “blobitecture.” Because the goal is to create a sculptural icon, this sort of design focuses on itself and ignores its urban context. 

On Center Street, BAM/PFA has a restaurant on the second floor that cantilevers out over the sidewalk. The south side of Center Street is very attractive because of the sidewalk seating in front of its restaurants, but the north side of the street, where the museum is, currently has very little street life.  

The museum could have added to the vitality of the street by having cafe seating on the sidewalk, but instead it put the cafe on the second floor, where it is cut off from the street life.  

Why did the architects do this? Renfro explains, "Everyone has a sidewalk cafe. We wanted an over-sidewalk cafe." In other words, he did it to be different, like the teenager who thinks, "Everyone has brown hair. I want purple hair."  

On Addison Street, the design does much worse damage. Currently, very few people walk on this block of Addison. The west half of the block has a few underused or vacant storefronts. The east half of the block has the delivery area of a faceless office building on one side and a small parking structure on the other side, which do not attract pedestrians to walk up the street. 

The Pacific Film archive will replace this parking structure, and it could have been designed to encourage people to walk up Addison Street. Instead, the only entrance to both the museum and the Film Archive will be on Center Street. No one will walk up Addison Street to the Film Archive: If they did, they would have to double back on Center Street to get to the entrance. 

The Film Archive's facade on Addison Street will be set back behind a lawn, will have no windows or doors, and will have a large video screen. The architect's drawing shows a crowd of people standing here and watching videos. In reality, very few people will walk on this street, and the video screen will not even be visible to people looking up the street from Shattuck. 

It is easy to predict what will happen to this space. In downtown Berkeley, if you design a dead space where no one walks, add a lawn where people can spread out, have no windows so there are no eyes on the street, and even add a video screen to provide entertainment for people with nothing to do, you have designed a perfect invitation to create a homeless encampment. 

Good urbanism demands that the Pacific Film Archive should have a separate entrance at the corner of Addison and Oxford Streets, to attract people to walk up Addison Street and make that street livelier and more successful economically. 

Ideally, this entrance should have a sign like the signs used in old Art Deco movie theaters, extending beyond the building line, so everyone looking up Addison knows it is a move theater. This sign would make it easier for people to find the theater when they come there for the first time, and it would connect this block visually with the arts district one block west on Addison Street. 

Of course, there is no chance that an avant-gardist would use this sort of common-sense traditional design for signage. This sort of conventional iconography makes buildings more legible to the public, but to communicate in this way, you have to use conventions rather than being totally new and different - which is as bad as having conventional brown hair instead of purple hair. 

At least, we should insist that the Film Archive have a separate entrance on Addison Street and a facade on that street that is closer to the sidewalk, so it is more visible. That minor redesign would attract large numbers of people to walk on this block of Addison Street, making it more vital and more successful, rather than giving this block a dead space and lawn that will only attract the homeless. 

Charles Siegel is the author of An Architecture For Our Time.