Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

January 26, 2016


Diller Scofidio + Renfro's new design and adaptive reuse of a historic printing plant.


Architecture, Articles, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Larry Rinder, Mario Ciampi, Toyo Ito

Architecture of Life. There’s nothing retiring about the ambitious title of the inaugural exhibition of The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). When the new building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro opens at the end of January, the sweeping survey curated by museum director Lawrence Rinder will fill all of the galleries with an imaginative, interdisciplinary, and international collection of some 250 works drawn from art, architecture, and science.

Although the show promises some self-reflexive spectacle, it is the title of the initial film program that sets the tone for an understanding of DS+R’s hybrid adaptive reuse and suggestive formalism. The retrospective series Cinema Mon Amour will ask celebrities, filmmakers, and artists to select precedent-setting films for screening. The New York City–based firm’s design is an architecture mon amour; it cannot help but carry the burden of longing for past plans and former architectures.

It is impossible to visit the Downtown Berkeley museum without evoking memories of Mario Ciampi’s raw concrete edifice across campus. Seismic issues drove BAMPFA out of that 1970 building, but Rinder also suggested that the architect’s open atrium and spiral of cantilevered, tray-like galleries made it a challenging space to hang and see art, setting up the case for a replacement rather than renovation. In 2008, the museum announced a $200 million design by Toyo Ito to be located along Center Street. The transit-friendly location paired nicely with an ongoing revival of downtown Berkeley and a reorientation of the campus-city interface to the west, rather than south toward Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues.

DS+R’s design for the new theater acts as a counterpoint to the existing art deco building. Architectural tension builds where the two structures come together.

Then the recession hit. The university needed a cheaper option for the Center Street site. At $112 million, DS+R’s scheme efficiently integrates the existing 48,000-square-foot art deco industrial building and an organically shaped, 35,000-square-foot structure (much of which dedicated to the theater and to Babette, the upper level cafe). In adapting the older WPA structure—formerly the University of California printing plant—the museum adds another layer of history: In 1945 the UN Charter was printed in the building.

And it is impossible to visit the new BAMPFA without inducing comparisons to Los Angeles’s The Broad, even though the two museums—one budget-minded, one blockbuster—share few common approaches and features. Differences even extend to design principal: Within the DS+R universe, Elizabeth Diller oversaw The Broad, while Charles Renfro took on the Berkeley project. Nevertheless, as BAMPFA is matched against the spatial drama of both Ciampi building and The Broad, it comes up pale—Depression-era architecture jazzed up with a shiny, stainless-steel skin.

Inside, DS+R duly parcels out the programmatic requirements, the largest being the main gallery lit by the original north-facing sawtooth skylights and its programmatic opposite, the windowless 232-seat theater—the auditorium’s volume gives the building exterior its rounded form. Four additional white-walled galleries (perfectly functional, but dull) and a tiny 33-seat theater are tucked below grade.

BAMPFA is an unrequited architecture—a building wishing it was more than the sum of its parts, of its pasts. But the pragmatic holds sway. Rinder noted that one goal of the museum was to “present our programmatic capacity in a safer building with a more efficient design.”

The best spatial experiences come when the programmatic imperative lightens up, producing overlaps and intersections indicative of DS+R’s imprint. The meeting of the auditorium and the older structure, for instance, produces stagy section slippages and creates an atrium that has views to the street and into study areas. A visit to the upstairs cafe—a chili-red corridor-esque space—pays off with God-like glimpses into the large gallery below and a viewing platform overlooking Center Street.

Brushing away the past, the museum’s current romance seems to be focused on engaging the public and establishing itself as a civic institution. Rinder noted that only 30 percent of museum visitors are students. Storefront windows along the main facade open onto the Art Wall, a 60- by 25-foot space reserved for temporary murals. A painting by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie will inaugurate the space.

DS+R installed a LED video screen on the north exterior wall of the main theater in order to screen films outside the typical auditorium setting. With a very small outdoor lawn for gathering, it is unclear at moment how this screen will transcend any prescribed role as digital billboard.

Just off the entry and ticketing, the ground floor drops away, replaced by cascade of meticulously joined wooden risers. Built by master woodworker Paul Discoe out of Canary Island pine lumber harvested on-site, the performance space is a site-specific artwork in itself. Rinder emphasized that attention to craftsmanship and natural materials connects to a Bay Area ethos: “It’s more Berkeley-ish than DS+R-ish.”

But is the space homage to Ciampi’s atrium, a tribute to the happenings when the museum opened in 1970, or a contemporary recognition of the need for public performance spaces in today’s cultural venues? In the end, BAMPFA’s future is a clouded personal and institutional memory, leaving one to wonder whether the museum’s architecture is robust enough move beyond lingering histories and truly engage downtown Berkeley.