A new home for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has been a long time coming. It’s been a full decade, in fact, since the Bancroft Way building they’d occupied since 1970 was deemed seismically deficient. The PFA moved to a temporary home on campus across the street from the museum in September 1999, and the museum underwent a partial retrofit in 2001 that let it stay open while plotting the next move. Ever since, it’s been a long process getting all the proverbial ducks in a row.
Several of those ducks, at least, are finally in place. The site, for one. The new building will be constructed on university-owned property across the street from the western edge of Cal’s main campus: the erstwhile printing warehouse at Center and Oxford streets.
By the time the new museum opens, this entire block will bear little resemblance to its current self. On Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford, where a Bank of America now sits, will sprout Berkeley’s tallest building to date, a proposed nineteen-story $150 million hotel and conference center. What’s more, a city advisory committee in January endorsed the prospect of closing that block of Center Street to traffic and making it a pedestrian plaza. A linked proposal to redirect and uncover an underground portion of Strawberry Creek, now culverted under Allston Way, into the would-be plaza has met with resistance.
“In theory, all three together would be very complementary,” says BAM/PFA director Kevin E. Consey. “In practice, designing the process so that either one of the three parts can proceed independently is an air-traffic-control issue, but so far it seems to be going fairly well.”
Plans for the new building have gone remarkably smoothly so far, although one ad hoc group, Friends of the UN Charter’s Birthplace, surfaced to argue that the existing UC Press building should be preserved simply because that’s where the original copies of the United Nations Charter were printed for the UN’s first session at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in 1945.
There are still basic issues, such as parking, to be determined. Some underground parking is planned for both the museum and the hotel, but not enough to offset the loss of existing spaces in a university-owned parking lot on that block, let alone the likely increased demand. BAM/PFA is working with the city on solutions, Consey says.
The new museum’s architect is the Tokyo-based Toyo Ito & Associates in what will be his first US project. Ito’s buildings in Japan are known for their striking use of transparency and organic reflection of their surroundings. “There are a variety of different buildings in Japan we toured that gave us a very positive feeling about his relationship to the community, his understanding of the kinds of spaces that people will feel uplifted in,” says Jane Metcalfe, vice president of the BAM/PFA board of trustees (and cofounder of Wired magazine). “To bring those design aesthetics to Berkeley is so incredibly exciting. To imagine this building touching down out of the sky like an object from the future, an object from outer space or something, is very, very exciting. Its sensibility is very modern, very sleek and clean, and yet it’s got uplifting elements that are very inspirational.”
Museum officials originally indicated that preliminary plans would be ready for public scrutiny by this past spring, but that was apparently optimistic. Consey says it will be at least another six to eight months before there’s a basic design to show. They hope to start construction in mid-to-late 2009 and open the facility’s doors (whatever those doors will look like) sometime in 2012.
The museum director returned a few weeks ago from Tokyo, where he met with Ito to negotiate some of the final stages of the conceptual design. “What we’re trying to do now is to test issues related to constructability and cost in this particular market to determine if the particular design can meet the financial capability of the museum and film archive to pay,” Consey says. “It’s that type of reality test.”
With that in mind, he’s reluctant to talk about the look of the building, noting that certain basic aspects, such as the materials to be used, have yet to be nailed down. The current plan, he says, calls for a four-story building (one of them subterranean), with a two-screen PFA, a digital media center, and additional classrooms and research centers.
“We’re dealing with shapes and floor plans and traffic flow more than we are specific materials,” Metcalfe says. “Because we occupy such a prominent location in downtown Berkeley, we wanted to make sure that people could see what was happening inside the building. I think one of the biggest changes between the existing building and our new building is going to be a lot more visibility into the insides, into the workings of the museum. All of those activities will be very apparent from the street.”
Estimates of the total price tag have ranged from $80 million to $120 million, but officials won’t really know until they pin down a design, allowing them to start checking real-world costs. “We hope that the hard costs of the building will be $100 million or less,” Consey says. “There are enough museum projects that have been done from Boston to San Francisco and LA to be able to get ballpark figures. … What is unknown is our construction conditions, the rate of inflation, and any special conditions.”
The museum construction is to be bankrolled by a private fund-raising drive that’s already under way. “We certainly haven’t raised all the money, but we’ve made very, very good progress, especially considering that we have not been able to release a design yet, which is often a key igniter in the success of a campaign,” the director notes.
Assuming all goes according to plan, the new facility will become a prominent part of the steadily growing Berkeley arts corridor — just one block away, on Addison, a new Freight & Salvage will sit across the street from Aurora Theatre, the Jazzschool, and the Berkeley Rep. “I think it will be an anchor that will connect to the university across the street and down towards the other art district participants and restaurants and theaters and so forth,” Metcalfe says. “It’s a big win. I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in Berkeley since I moved there in 1991.”