First look at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s plans for BAM/PFA


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Even as Eli Broad begins to build his own Diller Scofidio + Renfro museum on Bunker Hill, the busy New York firm has released the schematic design for a new facility for the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, known as BAM/PFA, in downtown Berkeley. The plans are classic DS+R, which is to say they are canny, sleekly attractive and conceptually overstuffed all at once.

A photo gallery of the design is here.


The proposal replaces an earlier plan for the complex by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito that was exquisitely designed but turned out to be, at nearly $150 million, prohibitively expensive. (The budget for the DS+R plan is roughly $90 million, about $65 million of which has been raised.) The museum has long been housed in a striking, if rather aggressive, landmark of Brutalist architecture by Mario Ciampi. That 1970 building (below), on the southern edge of the UC Berkeley campus, has seismic problems that the university estimates would cost at least $60 million to fix.

Unlike Ito’s plans, which would have required razing an existing printing plant at the museum’s new downtown location, the new design calls for turning the interior of the 1939 plant -- a spare, low-slung Art Deco building topped in part with north-facing, sawtooth skylights -- into about 23,000 square feet of gallery space on two floors, one at sidewalk level and the other newly excavated below ground.

Meanwhile a new structure, clad in a shimmering, largely windowless skin of zinc panels, will slip next to and over the older building and contain a 230-seat theater for the Pacific Film Archive, among other facilities. Along Center Street, on the southern edge of the site, a second-story cafe will cantilever out over the main entrance to the complex, which is expected to open in 2015.

The architecture here is streamlined, opportunistic and enigmatic rather than boldly expressive or -- as the Ito plan was -- precise and delicate. From the entrance over the existing building toward a small outdoor plaza along Addison Street, the new structure expands to fill a larger, zeppelin-like volume. The most impressive part of the design is this fat end of the new building; the Oxford Street elevation, where the older building rises to three stories high facing the campus, is weaker, especially where the two structures come together.

Like the firm’s reconfigured Lincoln Center in New York, DS+R’s Berkeley plan is eager to engage the city around it. Located a block from the downtown Berkeley BART station, the complex promises to give the neighborhood a new jolt of architectural energy and boost sidewalk traffic at the same time. (I wonder, though, about putting the plaza, which includes a sloping grass area facing an outdoor movie screen, on the north side, where it won’t get much sun, and where on foggy summer days -- which means many, many summer days in Berkeley -- it will be pretty blustery.) The interior of the new structure looks promising as well, particularly in the sectional variety it manages to carve out inside a relatively short building.

The real question is whether this project will prove to be the one where DS+R shows a clear ability to turn smart conceptual ideas into really affecting built space. Too many of its projects -- the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and Brown University’s Granoff Center are two examples -- have lost something crucial in moving from schematic to completed form; they are often thick with ideas but rather thin emotionally.

This may be because DS+R, which has been hugely prominent in theoretical debates over architecture’s future but has relatively few finished projects to its credit, is still perfecting the slippery art of building well. Or it may simply be because the firm’s strength lies in strategic thinking rather than in the act of making architecture powerfully moving in three dimensions. I think the jury is still out.

One of the DS+R’s liabilities along those lines has been a tendency to pack nearly all of its favorite motifs into each building. The Berkeley design suffers from some of that. Over here is the stair doubling as amphitheater -- circulation meets contemplation meets voyeurism -- that is featured at the High Line and in Boston; over there is the pinched zinc skin that appears at Brown. (The architects do seem to have worked hard to keep the overlap between this project and the Broad museum to a minimum.) The plaza, with its movie screen, reflects the firm’s longstanding interest in the relationship between multimedia technology and public space. It also features a miniature version of the sloping lawn that the architects placed on the roof of a new Lincoln Center restaurant.

The place where that question will really be answered, of course, is in the galleries inside the repurposed printing plant. If they turn out be thrilling -- in their spatial character and in the quality of their light -- the university’s decision to save the plant as a way to trim the budget will seem validated, even obvious. If not, we may find ourselves looking again at the Ito design (above) and contemplating what might have been -- or, for that matter, wondering anew why exactly the university decided not to retrofit its existing home, which from a purely architectural point of view is one of the most striking buildings in Berkeley.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Image (top): A computer rendering of a schematic design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in downtown Berkeley. Credit: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Photo (middle): The interior of the museum’s 1970 home, by the architect Mario Ciampi. Credit: Ben Blackwell

Image (bottom): Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s plans for BAM/PFA, which were abandoned two years ago as too expensive. Credit: Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive