By Lacey Bubnash
On December 21, 2014, the Berkeley Art Museum1permanently closed its iconic Modern building in preparation for a move to a nearby new building in 2016. Considered by many to be the Bay Area’s most remarkable example of Brutalism, the structure was known for its unfinished concrete forms and cantilevered interior galleries that radiate out around a large, sky lit atrium. Although the building is a local landmark and listed on the National Register, its intricate concrete forms pose seismic safety risks, leaving a future for the building unclear.
Photo (left): View of skylights over atrium. Credit: Mary Brown, DOCOMOMO US/NOCA.
The University Art Museum was first founded in 1963 following a large donation by artist Hans Hofmann. An architectural competition for a new building was held in 1964, attracting over 300 proposals. The competition was won by Mario Ciampi with associates Richard Jorasch and Ronald Wagner, and the monumental concrete structure opened to the public in 1970. The museum’s founding director, Peter Selz, worked to build a strong permanent collection during the building’s construction, and ultimately welcomed the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) to join the museum and share the building. The PFA opened inside the Berkeley Art Museum in January 1971, with a PFA Library and Film Study Center opening in 1972.
Photo (right): View from upper gallery looking down into museum atrium. Credit: Mary Brown, DOCOMOMO US/NOCA.
Mario Ciampi (1907-2006) was a significant Bay Area architect and urban designer best known for adopting innovating structural concepts and creating distinctive buildings on a limited budget. During his 70-year career, Ciampi designed varied architectural works, including small elementary schools, freeway overpasses and exchanges, and downtown San Francisco urban plans. The University Art Museum was among his most high-profile designs, and it received a 25-year award from the AIA California Council in 1996.
Located at 2626 Bancroft Way, directly across the street from the University of California’s main Berkeley campus, the 100,000-square-foot University Art Museum is set into a sloping site that makes the building appear bunker-like from the street. An Alexander Calder sculpture, The Hawk for Peace (1968), was commissioned specifically for the museum at the time of its construction, and sits directly adjacent to the main entrance. After entering the building through a low-ceilinged lobby, visitors step into a central atrium, which is lit with a series of stepped skylights and surrounded by a spiral of cantilevered galleries. A series of concrete ramps switchback between gallery spaces, while a rear sculpture garden is visible through deeply-recessed, accordion-fold glass window walls. Those glass walls link gallery spaces to a sculpture garden and raised terrace areas. At the exterior, the rear garden provides views of the radiating concrete blocks that form the building.
Photo (above): Front entrance to the building. Credit: Lacey Bubnash
The striking interior atrium space, including its lattice-like skylights, make the building stand out as an exceptional work of Brutalism. Mario Ciampi designed diverse buildings throughout his career, with very few Brutalist structures in his portfolio. In addition to its remarkable form, the Museum holds significant art and film collections, and has supported pioneering and influential exhibition programs. The central atrium has been the site of performance art and other nontraditional exhibit forms throughout the Museum’s history. The building became a City of Berkeley Landmark in 2012, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
The unusual fan-shaped form of the building has proven difficult to seismically retrofit, ultimately leading to a new museum building currently under construction. A 1997 seismic assessment determined the Art Museum did not meet current seismic standards and was highly vulnerable to earthquakes. A limited retrofit was completed in 2001, including the addition of visible interior and exterior bracing, but did not bring the structure up to seismic standards levels required by the University of California Seismic Safety Policy. The structure is currently classified as “poor” in the UC Berkeley seismic safety rating system, meaning significant damage resulting in appreciable life hazards is expected during a major earthquake.
Photo (right): View of cantilevered balconies in main atrium space. Credit: Mary Brown, DOCOMOMO US/NOCA.
Other than the seismic issues, the building is fairly good condition. The board-form concrete walls have some staining patterns at the exterior, but remain unpainted. The skylight system has leaked periodically throughout the building’s history, and also created difficulties in displaying light-sensitive artworks. The Pacific Film Archive theater moved out of the building and across the street in 1999 to gain additional space. The new museum building, scheduled to open in early 2016, will reunite the museum and theater once again.
Like many Brutalist buildings before it, the Berkeley Art Museum is not universally beloved by users. Complaints by critics and museum staff include that the galleries are inflexible and uncompromising, sometimes overshadowing the works on display, and that the space configurations require a large number of security guards. The extensive use of raw concrete also makes the installation of video and sound art challenging, while limiting the use of color and other design options in the galleries.
UC Berkeley has announced its intention to repurpose rather than sell or demolish the building, but has not identified any specific uses or occupants. Necessary seismic upgrades are anticipated to include construction that will significantly change and enclose the open atrium and gallery spaces.2Such retrofits will likely impact the significant interior spaces, but are a preferred alternative to demolition of the building.
Photo (above): Concrete ramps provide access between gallery spaces. Note the vertical bracing added during the 2001 seismic retrofit. Credit: Mary Brown, DOCOMOMO US/NOCA.
The Northern California Chapter of DOCOMOMO US has been highlighting this and other Mario Ciampi works over the past few years, in the hopes that further knowledge and appreciation of his works will help them remain relevant and intact. In 2013, we hosted a lecture by local author and architect Pierluigi Serraino entitled “Mario Ciampi: A Concrete Architect” at the Berkeley Art Museum. During our 2014 DOCOMOMO US Tour Day event, we visited five schools designed by Ciampi in Daly City and Pacifica, California, many of which have been heavily altered over time. We are confident that the strong landmark protections provided by the City of Berkeley will help keep this remarkable structure largely intact, but without an occupant it remains at risk for neglect.
Photo (left): View of building form from rear garden. Credit: Lacey Bubnash
Lacey Bubnash is an architect and conservator at Architectural Resources Group in San Francisco. She has served on the board of the Northern California Chapter of DOCOMOMO US since 2008, and currently serves as chapter secretary