Review: The new Berkeley Art Museum is a study in extremes

Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

How many arranged marriages can one piece of architecture handle?

That’s among the most intriguing questions raised by the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which was designed by Broad museum architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and opened at the end of last month.

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The museum mixes Art Deco and contemporary architecture, combining a remade 1939 printing plant on the western edge of the UC Berkeley campus with a twisting new structure, clad in ribbons of stainless steel, that emerges from the sidewalk, slithers over the existing building and cantilevers over the main entrance.

It brings together town and gown, depositing the university art museum, founded in 1963 with a gift of 45 paintings and $250,000 by the painter Hans Hofmann, near the heart of downtown Berkeley. It carves out room, as its mouthful of a name suggests, for both art and cinema.

Perhaps trickiest of all, given its history as a project born of post-2008 caution, it tries to make bedfellows of austerity and daring.

The result, despite some uneven moments, is compelling enough to qualify as the most significant work of architecture to go up in Berkeley since — well, probably since the museum’s old home, designed by Mario Ciampi and located less than a mile away, opened in 1970.

And there, in a nutshell, is the complicated achievement of the new BAMPFA (pronounced Bam-P-F-A). It is clearly a boon for the city of Berkeley (particularly its underperforming downtown, which is already feeling at least a little livelier) and for the architecture culture of the Bay Area, which tends toward conservatism as a general rule.


Cannily ambitious, the building is full of dramatic interior spaces and blasts of color. It gives the museum far more programmatic flexibility than it had before.

But it lacks the singular power of the concrete-clad Ciampi design, a complex, fan-shaped example of Brutalist architecture that the university abandoned because it has major seismic problems (and also, to a degree, because its galleries could be difficult places to show certain kinds of art).

In that sense this newest chapter in the museum’s evolution is something of a West Coast version, at a reduced scale, of recent changes at New York’s Whitney Museum. Last year the Whitney traded its bold but challenging Marcel Breuer building, completed in 1966, for a new home at the southern end of the High Line by Renzo Piano that it is at once airier, friendlier and less memorable than the original.

The difference in Berkeley is that the Ciampi design so far lacks a savior to match the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has leased the old Whitney as a satellite facility. (The building will reopen to the public next month as the Met Breuer.) For now the Ciampi museum, on the southern edge of the university campus, sits empty, its future uncertain.

The fate of the older museum is not the only shadow looming over the DS+R building. There’s also a significant one cast by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who was chosen a decade ago to design a new BAMPFA in downtown Berkeley.

His proposal, for a three-story box of gallery space and screening rooms inside a thin container of curving, white-painted steel, would have ranked among the most ambitious cultural buildings in California in a generation. It was abandoned as too costly by the museum in 2009, in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Instead of developing a pared-down, post-crash design with its original architect, as the Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons did to such impressive effect with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the BAMPFA board turned instead to a cheaper, simpler proposal for the same downtown site by DS+R. Its plan called for repurposing an existing UC Press printing plant (and attached office wing) and wrapping a new architectural form around it.

Instead of a projected $143 million for the Ito design in 2008 dollars — and an estimated $60 million to $80 million to fix the Ciampi building — the new museum cost a total of $112 million in the end.

The main entrance faces south onto a stretch of Center Street, along a busy pedestrian route leading from the downtown Berkeley Bay Area Rapid Transit station to campus. Large new windows have been punched through the old printing plant along that side, taking what had been a rather quiet building and making it much more engaged with the life of the street.

Around the corner, facing the campus, the clash of old and new is more dramatic, with the addition twisting along the roofline of the older structure before dipping down to meet the sidewalk. A triangular section of glass joins the twisting metal skin to the existing building, offering views from the sidewalk down into the museum’s lower level.

The design team, led by DS+R partners Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin, has described the new metallic form as a “cipher.” Seen up close, the skin’s overlapping steel panels recall not so much a shiny version of Berkeley’s brown-shingle architecture but the kind of hammered or molded steel used in Art Deco design or in furniture by the auction-house favorite Ron Arad.

An LED screen hangs from the northern end of the museum. The original design called for a small amphitheater dug out of the ground at the foot of the screen, but a simple patch of grass was installed instead.

As the building continues down Addison Street, past the outdoor screen, it begins to look even more expedient. A small parking lot and loading dock, set against the plain white walls of the museum’s back-of-house facade, occupy prime real estate that would have been ideal for cafe tables or landscaped open space.

A major goal of moving the museum downtown was to allow it to engage directly with the cultural of the life of the city, so thinking of it as a building in the round, one that owes as much in urban terms to its back door as its front, would have made very clear sense. Addison is already branded as Berkeley’s official arts corridor; the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Aurora Theatre and the Freight & Salvage music hall are just down the block.

Inside the museum continues to move, and occasionally lurch, between the surprising and the straightforward. As you walk toward the ticket desk, a large amphitheater, lined in pine by Paul Discoe, an expert in Japanese joinery, falls away dramatically to the left.

The galleries, occupying two of the old building’s three large bays, are cavernous, with polished concrete floors under sawtooth roofs. The exposed mechanical equipment along the ceiling is painted white. Additional, more workmanlike galleries are tucked away on the lowest level, while a narrow bookshop occupies the space along the Center Street edge.

The new portion of the building — straight ahead as you enter — is more colorful and formally adventurous, with staircases and a top-floor cafe (which fills the cantilever over the front door) wrapped in persimmon-red walls.

A long corridor opens onto the galleries before leading to a large, smartly designed new main movie theater for the Pacific Film Archive, which has been part of the university art museum since 1971. In fact the clearest triumph of the downtown facility is the way it puts BAMPFA’s art and film programs on equal footing, both functionally and symbolically.

The architects achieve in the new building quite a bit of the sectional variety that was a hallmark of the old BAMPFA, with pieces of floor or wall cut away to open up dramatic views. The perspective from the new cafe across the galleries, looking west across the widest part of the building, is particularly well framed. In total the downtown building covers 83,000 square feet, including 25,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Despite its flaws, the Ciampi museum is a forceful, unyielding work of architecture. The Ito design, for all the delicacy of its form-making, promised a similar strength of will.

The DS+R building is different: drained of ambition, color and character in certain corners and flooded with those qualities in others. The design is quiet, then feverish, then quiet again.

There is the strong sense that the architects are keeping one eye on their reputation for unorthodox thinking and the other on the bottom line — content not so much to compromise as to weigh their battles and pick their spots.