Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Berkeley's Best and Worst Buildings

Thinking about which of Berkeley's recent buildings I like most and least, I realized that my choices were a good illustration of the two possibilities for architecture today.

Most everyone dislikes the Golden Bear Building (below), a sterile glass and concrete box. Shortly after it was built, the city created its Design Review Board, and the chair of the Planning Commission explained that we needed design review because "We don't want any more bears." This building is so unappealing that it has to rent its storefronts to offices; it cannot attract retail businesses, though there is a row of new restaurants in the older buildings across the street from it.

Though it was built in the 1980s, the Golden Bear Building is a typical modernist design of the 1950s and 1960s. We can see the two ways that architects have reacted against modernism by looking at the later buildings in Berkeley that I like least and most.

My least favorite are two buildings by the architect Kava Massih. Like many architects today, he tries to avoid the sterility of modernism by designing buildings that are deliberately grotesque.

Massih's Downtown Berkeley Inn (below) is a plain stucco box, which would have looked like an apartment building out of the 1960s, except that Massih varied it by putting frames around the windows, some protruding and some recessed, and painting them in random colors. He also did not align the windows on different floors one under another. So, we end up with something that looks like a plain stucco box designed by a drunk architect.

Massih goes even further in the University Neighborhood Apartments (below), where he breaks up the massing of the building in grotesque ways.

Looking at the entrance to this building (below), you can see that, though he thinks about obscure esthetic issues, he does not think much about designing comfortable places for people to be. This is the most pedestrian-unfriendly entrance of all the mixed-use projects built in Berkeley in recent decades.

This building also has not been able to keep retail tenants that need to attract customers. Its retail space is rented by, which delivers food late at night.

My favorite recent buildings are by Kirk Peterson, who gets away from the modernist box by moving back toward traditional designs. One example is the Bachenheimer Building (below). You can see how well it fits into its context, next to the old Acheson Physicians building that is to its right in the picture.

But the Bachenheimer Building tries a bit too hard. My favorite recent building in Berkeley is Peterson's Wesley Center (below) which is much more subdued. The massing and a touch of ornament gives it a collegiate Gothic feel, which fits in with the Methodist church (to its left in the picture) and with its function as a religious institution. The windows and small garden at ground level make it feel welcoming to pedestrians. The oak tree on the site had to be preserved according to city law.

Both Peterson's Wesley Center and Massih's University Neighborhood Apartments are trying to get away from the modernist box by breaking up the building into a more complex massing.

The difference is that Massih is afraid to use traditional forms or ornamentation. He sticks with the modernist dogma that today's buildings must be different from anything built in the past, and so he refuses to learn the lessons that old buildings can teach us about how to create good places.

Early modernists believed their buildings had to be different from traditional buildings because they were using modern materials (like the steel, glass, and concrete of the Golden Bear Building) and they wanted to express the nature of those materials.

But the buildings that we have looked at by Massih and Peterson are all wood framed, the lowest cost construction method.

There is nothing about the nature of the materials that makes Massih design the Downtown Berkeley Inn with window that are out of alignment and window frames that sometimes are recessed and sometimes protrude, or that makes him design University Neighborhood Apartments with odd massing and with a flat, characterless wall around the entrance. He is just being different for the sake of being different.

After you reject the modernist dogma that a building must be an honest expression of modern materials, there is no longer any reason to keep the modernist dogma that today's buildings must be different from anything built in the past.

Instead, we can learn from traditional architecture, with its accumulated experience of how to design buildings that are good places for people.