So long, so gone

November 8, 2010

Berkeley Art Museum

Sadly, the Berkeley Art Museum, aka BAM/PFA, is leaving its building. To a lover of the museum, it feels like a vulnerable, soft-bodied snail is leaving its magnificent, geometrically mesmerizing shell and setting out some Never Ending Story journey, if only its new home is only a few blocks away. (But it's moving into the shell of, at least what's now, a depressing building. See a picture here :( ). The move has been in the works since 1997, but, catching an inadvertant clause in a late-nineties newspaper clip on its architect during research for this post, I just became aware of it, and it awakened a tragedy of emotions (the burning arrow/castle sequence of Kurosawa's Ran. Really.).

The building attracted me immediately on the first visit in the early Primes. In that era, I traveled from Austin to Northern California by way of Berkeley fairly frequently and would always visit the museum (it was like a beacon in my mind's perception of the not-quite-a-city city - it's soul, heart, light seeping into Claremont, shining out and over campus, spreading down Bancroft, enveloping the Gourmet Ghetto like the East Bay's random, diverse, now-dense, now-sparse, now-gone fog), located in the foothills of Berkeley across the street (south) from Cal.

BAM shares a magnetism with NYC's Guggenheim - a vast, open interior, with compelling, spiraled galleries, dancing, staccato (notably unlike the Guggenheim), around it. The building itself surpasses any of the art it holds, though the pieces of the museum's eclectic collection, made up of traditional Asian pieces, various sculptures, some notable modern works by Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, tucked in its various corners/galleries make this random, make-shift collection dazzle and brings dimension, illumination and life to the powerful blank-canvas-of-a-space. It's a hyperconducive setting for a clean aesthetic experience.

The lower galleries make space for contemporary, eccentric shows: one of my favorite BAM memories occurred during a middle-of-the-day brief visit with a friend. We reclined in adjacent massage chairs that faced a lower gallery's wall with many-colored, bright, vivid, vibrant neon lightbulbs dangling, sparkling from its upper reaches - an exquisite experience.

The mostly concrete building (inside and out), completed in 1970 and alternately lauded and scorned - it was called a bunker by The New York Times architecture writer Nicolai Ouroussoff (and likely by others) - is typical of its Brutalist genre. With an overwhelming concrete interior and exterior segmented into playdoh-like blocks with visible pour textures and seams, the building asserts a surprisingly supple energy. It was designed by modernist San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi, chosen from among 366 aspiring BAM architects. Ciampi had an idiosyncratic passion for a civic design that brought people together; his unrealized dreams for downtown San Francisco included sections of Market Street, downtown's main avenue, as pedestrian-only plazas. He worked on these ideas until his death at 99 in 2006. What he failed to do for his hometown, however, he did for us in the 96,000-square-foot BAM building.

Inside, along with a related sense of intimacy, it feels like you're entering, as a miniaturized being, a snail shell as six axes, represented by six elevated gallery spaces jutting toward the museum's main entrance, converge on your position. Like the Guggenheim, the galleries wind counter-clockwise up, but here the revolution ends just shy of one. Concrete and jutting, blocky geometry so dominate the building that space takes on a dimension-less feel: cardinal compass points incohere, even the shape of the building remains amorphous in the mind's map though all its end-walls are visible from many places in the museum.

The building has a heart, a central axis open from base layer to ceiling, which is the most intriguing aspect of the building as it provides a rich, deep sense of where you are.

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(I stole the previous phrase from literary journalist John McPhee (his first piece published in The New Yorker, which he had pestered for years as an aspiring writer, was on basketball (an account of playing ball in England (almost played on an ill-formed court in the Tower of London)). The line comes from his first book and early New Yorker piece (The current New Yorker editor-in-chief, David Remnick, took McPhee's writing class, as many now-notable "literary" journalists did, at Princeton, which McPhee still teaches) on Princetoner, NBAer, later, U.S. Presidential-hopeful Bill Bradley (became a book, too) titled, A Sense of Where You Are). Check out his 1976 book Coming Into the Country. The scope of the reporting gives an indication of why McPhee is the grandfather of literary journalism. He structures his pieces so carefully, scene by scene as they drift in and out and around his subjects - characters, places, first-person, scent, emotion, the cool water-wreath of coming-out-of-the-country Alaskan-river-soaked bandanna encircling your forehead - glorious. Check out a grad school paper I did on McPhee here).

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BAM's building has strong Abstract Expressionist elements, too, which fit fluently with the spirit of the museum's impetus: the famous Ab-Ex artist and then-Berkeley professor Hans Hofmann provided the spark for the museum when he donated 47 of his paintings and $250,000 in 1963 to start the endeavor off. Hofmann, who died in 1966, would have recognized the blocky, abstract forms in much of his work in the building's wonderfully chaotic, unified feel; the building's an evocation of his work's characteristic subliminal symmetry and freedom. Skylights slice the ceiling at different elevations and planes over the building's center. Shifting trapezoidal spaces swirl around the central axis in a cubist throw of space. The exterior exhibits the interior: concrete cubes jutting out as if centrifuged.

BAM is moving because of the Bay Area 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that interupted the Oakland A's World Series. A seismic retrofit of the building in 2001, after a 1997 structural analysis, brought numerous steel supports, inside and out - six white steel supports on the inside and numerous black spiderleg-like ones on the outside - but they weren't enough to keep the museum in place.

The new building site lies across from the University of California, Berkeley's main entrance, where the muted Art Deco-style former university print building stands. The move has not been a straightline endeavor. In 2006, the university hired world-renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who has not worked in the United States yet, to design the building on the one-and-a-third-acre lot. It was critically acclaimed; though, as Ouroussoff chillingly forecast in his 2008 New York Times article reviewing the project, its $200 million cost turned prohibitive in late 2009 - another victim of the stumbling economy. At that point, the university had raised just under half of the funds.

Ito's design was marvelous by all accounts. Ariane Bicho, communications director for the museum (dressed in black, with black tortoise-shell glasses that dominated your impression of her), gave a longing look for a moment after hesitatingly describing its design (she was clearly having a bittersweet moment, and at the same time remaining aware of her political duty as communications director for the museum). She mentioned curving walls that never really met - a seamless, water-flowing space, "compelling." The design was dominated by arching, flowing, thin molded steel plates, filled with concrete, flayed and slender as potato chips. It was "as if the façade had been slowly eroding over millenniums," wrote Ourousseff. Ironically, the building's design inspired at least one reviewer to respond to the space in a way the current one excels: "I kept imagining people wandering through the building the way you might wander through a park - not because there is something in particular you are planning to see, but because it's a park … ." Ourousseff also pointed out, "Mr. Ito once said that he would like to create spaces that are like ‘eddies in a current of water.'" It appears his BAM model did just that. Too bad the university had to pass on it.

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, a noted New York City architectural firm with a great Web site (check it out), has picked up the pieces and designed a $95-million space that will use the standing 48,000-square-foot three-story building and a to-be-built 38,000-square-foot addition where a spiraling two-story parking lot now stands. The design is still going through internal review, so Bicho stood tight-lipped on details, but there will be a public comment period late next year or early 2012 with an eye to building completion in late 2014. (blah, blah, blah). Nearly half of the cost has been raised.

Thankfully, the current BAM concrete monster will not be torn down, but most likely used as academic support space. It will be divided up, however, which will fortify it, but in the process kill its open-axis heart that made the space such an amazing, radiant place to visit.