Week of February 13, 2002

To Be Brutally Honest …
The East Bay is home to many intelligent, highly educated, and artistically literate people. A lot of them seem to like the Gaia Building (“How Green is my City?” January 30). Clearly, these people did not have the advantage of receiving the sort of architecture school, Modernist brainwashing that your erstwhile critic, Mr. Kenyon, enjoyed.

Asking Mr. Kenyon to review my design is a bit like asking a dog for his opinions about cats. As a true believer in Modernism, he cannot fathom or enjoy anything that is referenced to, or inspired by anything from the many centuries before the twentieth. He dismisses any regard for Mediterranean aesthetics as sentimental. It should be noted that most of the great old buildings on Shattuck Avenue were built by developers in some variation of a Mediterranean-Classical style. After two centuries of use in California, this style is really an indigenous and vernacular way of building. I do not understand what makes Plachek’s decision to pluck motifs from the Mayan civilization for the Berkeley Library genuine, but my choice of Italianate forms for an apartment building unacceptable. I’m a native of California and also an Italian citizen: was Plachek Mayan?

The only part of the Gaia Building that Mr. Kenyon seems to like is a part he finds “unadorned and brutally honest.” This is true Modernist taste, the kind that inspired people to save Wurster Hall (home of UC Berkeley’s architecture department), a building that most people think is hideous. It was built in a Modernist mode called Brutalism. Why must the Modernist faithful be so eager to force their tastes on the rest of us, to brutalize us?

An unprejudiced observer sees that the Gaia Building is a collegial fellow of its older neighbors. With them, it shares some motifs and the general sensibility of traditional humanistic architecture. People like John Kenyon look at my work and see “slavish imitation, false historicism, pastiche, not of our time, etc.”: This is the standard litany of dogma for condemning designers who speak in a different voice. Downtown Berkeley is an eclectic jumble of structures and has the strong juxtapositions of height and style characteristic of an American city. The Gaia Building is a part of the evolving composition of downtown Berkeley. When it has weathered a bit and acquired a patina, and the trumpet creepers have had some time to clamber over the trellises, it will no longer stand out so strongly.

Even some preservationists of BAHA seem to like the way the Gaia Building looks. Yes, I do still have friends among their numbers. Many are unhappy about the structure’s height and are angry about its curious and highly political approval process. These people worked hard to help create the current Downtown Design Guidelines that encourage the sort of work I do. They have worked tirelessly to conserve Berkeley’s remarkable collection of architecture. Mr. Kenyon overlooks their great value to the city as knowledgeable students of its built environment and as people who ask lots of questions. He can dismiss them because he deems them “obsessed and sentimental.” If working in a Mediterranean mode really “almost guaranteed approval from design review committees and elected officials,” these folks would not run me through the gauntlet like any other architect working for a developer.

One would think that in this day of ubiquitous electronic devices, Mr. Kenyon could do me the courtesy of quoting me correctly. My statement was about my trepidation at attempting to produce an excellent design given the public process and a developer client. At the beginning I told Patrick Kennedy that I would only work for him if certain standards of quality were met (true divided light windows, solid wrought iron metal railings, a real ceramic tile roof, etc.). He acquiesced to these demands. The design “learned” as it developed.

Pressure from the historical preservationists (the hysterical preservationists to Mr. Kennedy) influenced the scale and composition of the street elevation. Richard Register lobbied successfully for roof decks. Mr. Kennedy wanted a “bat cave” for himself on the roof. I got to compose these elements into a form that “steps up interestingly,” as Mr. Kenyon says. At times, I felt like I was channeling some sort of meshuga Berkeley energy. In the end, I’m quite happy with the way the Gaia Building turned out.

I will concede that — Alas! — the Gaia Building is not perfect. But it would be better to have a more balanced review of it. Mr. Kenyon is well able to describe the Gaia Building in colorful pejorative terms (“a cross between a PG&E substation and an arm’s dealers love nest,” whatever that may mean), but does not ever get around to providing any really useful, specific, or constructive critique of it.

Classical architecture is just that: Classic. It tends to be beautiful. It works well for contemporary living. This great and varied body of work inspires my design work, as it inspired the architects of many fine buildings in Berkeley. These are buildings that people like, for some very good reasons. Having said that, and having vented about the narrow Modernist view that Mr. Kenyon represents, I will go on to say that there are in fact many Modernist buildings that I like a lot. We have local architects who do excellent Modernist work. What Mr. Kenyon calls a “half-assed demo-bureaucratic system” is in fact more liberal and flexible than he is, and I’m glad that it allows us considerable freedom of expression.
Kirk E. Peterson, via the Internet

Back to the Ballot Box
I am compelled to respond to Nancy Wilson’s letter (“Realtor Check,” January 23) assailing a recent Berkeley City Council-approved mixed use, affordable housing infill development on Sacramento Street near Hearst — the outback Senior Homes Development.

Omitted from Ms. Wilson’s letter is any mention that forty units of mixed-income housing for local senior citizens will be provided by a veteran developer, Affordable Housing Associates (thirty units will be deeply affordable, ten units market rate).

The Outback development will offer ground-floor retail amenities and a sustainable, low-key, “stepped” building design along an important urban transit corridor. Simultaneously, the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis will be addressed.

Ms. Wilson complains that her efforts to block this senior housing were purportedly thwarted by “developers, politicians, and the media.” She further states that she attended city “design review, zoning and housing” commission meetings to no avail, despite her neighborhood activism.

Rather than complain, I would suggest that Ms. Wilson actively campaign/work to democratically elect a city councilmember — responsible for appointing city commissioners — who accurately reflects her own views on Berkeley public policy.

It is worth noting that Ms. Wilson’s own democratically elected district councilmember (and her appointed commissioners) voted to approve the Outback development for the reasons cited above.
Chris Cavanaugh,

Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission

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