The building currently housing the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a béton brut fortress designed by Bay Area son Mario Ciampi, was completed in 1970 and declared seismically unfit in 1997. Though a partial retrofit has allowed operations to continue in the existing building, the seismic reality check nevertheless set BAM/PFA on course to build itself a new home.
The new building will occupy a choice site at the intersection of Center and Oxford Streets, where the UC Berkeley campus meets the most active part of downtown. Japanese architect Toyo Ito, recently named the 2013 Pritzker Prize Laureate, was tapped in 2006 to design a new building on this site. The project progressed as far as a schematic design before suffering an untimely death in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The project brief was subsequently redefined to include the adaptive reuse of an industrial building, which currently occupies the site. After some intervening years, New York-based firm Diller, Scofidio and Renfro (DS+R) were brought on to complete the project, which broke ground last month and is slated for completion in 2016.
The Ito proposal and DS+R's succeeding design, currently under construction, both emphasize permeability, transparency, and a casual intermingling of programmatic elements. It’s hard to argue that Berkeley lost anything in the bargain, as the disappointment of the stalled Ito design gave way to an industrial adaptive reuse project well suited to the approach of DS+R, a firm known for its ability to spin gritty urban sites into dynamic public spaces.
Yet, the DS+R design is unremarkable for appearing to deploy themes already explored in earlier work, and figures as a footnote in the firm's rich slate of high-profile institutional commissions. During her lecture concluding the spring 2012 series at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, Elizabeth Diller referred to the existing building, formerly home to an academic printing press, as a “shed” and their addition “a pork chop” placed on top of it, hinting humorously at the project’s modest ambitions. Contrast this to the Ito project which, if completed, would have been his first in North America and one of a small handful of major buildings that Ito and Associates has completed outside of Japan.
Considering Ito’s elevation of process above other aspects of design, it may be problematic to read too much into the significance of an unbuilt project. Yet, his BAM/PFA design is notable for having charted new territory within Ito’s body of work, including an innovative spatial concept and new treatment of the relationship between building interior and exterior. In the fluid composition of vertical surfaces, one can also read the continued development of Ito’s “emergent grid” concept, which explores the relationship between structure and geometry in the adaptive play of shifting, non-rational building elements.
– Brian Turner, San Francisco
An interview with Dana Buntrock on the significance of Ito’s lost proposal.
Brian Turner interviewed Dana Buntrock, a Professor at UC Berkeley and researcher specializing in the construction industry and architectural practice in Japan, who has worked closely with Toyo Ito and other leading contemporary Japanese architects.
Brian Turner: I think the BAM/PFA project should be seen as the first instance in Ito’s work where the interior play of the emergent grid has escaped the exterior boundaries of the building. You have the Sendai Mediatheque, with irregular columns displayed as in an aquarium. Tama Art University Library is a step along the way, where the interior arches collide and are flattened by the exterior of the building. Then at the BAM/PFA and also the Taichung Opera House, the game extends in all directions and is simply sliced off at the boundaries of the site.
Dana Buntrock: Your take on this is different from mine. I think this business of suggesting a spatial continuity – which is what the emergent grid and Mediatheque are about − is something that Ito has been interested in for a long time. But at the Mediatheque he’s still responding to the idea that there’s a universal space that you capture. There is actually a grid, the honeycomb grid of the three floors, which had to be modified where it met the spatial columns. At that point it’s only the floor planes − one of the things that happens later, around the time of the Serpentine Pavilion, is that he starts to think of it as something that you can fold into the third dimension.
I had read that the walls of the BAM/PFA were going to be poured concrete with steel cladding.
The steel was going to be a sandwich system with concrete poured inside. The Mikimoto project used that system and it was innovative there. The BAM project was innovative in terms of the sandwich being curved. The university looked at things like Mediatheque and said, we can build this. They were looking at earlier Ito buildings from a construction technology standpoint and saying, we can do this. They weren’t taking note of the fact that Ito is always moving forward and is ahead of existing construction technology.
Maybe the biggest opportunity that was missed with this project was not just losing the building, but missing how Ito would engage with the fabrication process in the Bay Area.
His take on what we can build in the Bay Area was not correct. I think if Ito had sent some bright guys to come over here and talk to fabricators and figure out what was possible, he could have done what he did with Mediatheque. Mediatheque grew out of changes that were happening − that he paid close attention to − in steel fabrication. They were moving toward CNC, robotic welding, the very precise ability to cut things at one angle and then at another angle. The building reflects the fact that he caught on to all that before most other people had. Ito’s success there was bringing to life new possibilities from the local fabrication community.
It seems funny to me that this project, which I think clearly marks some key developments in Ito’s work, may disappear as something that never happened.
I think that he just wouldn’t see the proposal at the stage it got to as being fully articulated or developed in a way that could tell him what the outcome would be. I think he’s a bit like a scientist who puts these things together and wants to see if it will play out this way or play out that way.