By Ian David Volner and Ian Volner
March 02, 2016
Photoby Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro;EHDD;andUC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

First, an admission: the author's uncle is an Oakland, California-based architect who struggled for years to construct a lovely spec house in the hills above Berkeley, contending with every NIMBY-ish objection that the neighbors and municipal authorities could think to throw at him. He triumphed, in the end, but a lesson was learned—the East Bay is not always a welcoming place for new design.

It was a surprise, then, to turn up in the area a few weeks ago for the debut of the new Berkeley Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). The $112-million, 83,000-square-foot facility is right in the heart of the West Coast's premier academic village, just across the street from campus and a few steps from the historic center of town; that also puts it right in the crosshairs of one of the country's most famously quarrelsome and protest-inclined communities, a parlous situation that the museum and its designers seem to have handled with admirable finesse.

Elizabeth Daniels

The architects behind the project, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), are no strangers to tricky institutional commissions. This is the team that gave us the revamped Lincoln Center, unsnarling the complex's baleful infrastructure while preserving its historic character; they're also the folks responsible for the current MoMA expansion, a design that's has taken considerable heat since it entails the demolition of Billie Tsien and Todd William's widely admired Museum of American Folk Art. The firm, comprising principals Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro, have a way of weaving deftly between assorted rocks and hard places—and when they can't, they're not afraid to force their way through.

BAMPFA had already gone through one proposal, from Japanese architect Toyo Ito, before its administrators tapped the New York-based trio for a different approach. The reasons that the original scheme failed are a little obscure, but the prevailing theory—as evidenced by local media, as well as cocktail conversation around Berkeley during the museum's opening week—was that it had simply been too expensive: the building, which was to have been Ito's first in the US, came with a price tag nearly $30 million north of DS+R's. It could not have helped, however, that Ito's plan also called for the destruction of the historic University of California Printing Plant, an Art Deco-ish National Register building that BAMPFA had chosen as the site for its new home (replacing its original digs, a late-60's Brutalist pile by architect Mario Campi on the south side of campus). In jettisoning the Ito scheme, museum administrators saved themselves a nice chunk of change, as well as the political hassle of knocking down a beloved local landmark.

That structure, newly refurbished, is the centerpiece of DS+R's design, with new offices and exhibition spaces added onto it through a sequence of maneuvers that the firm has made a house specialty. Long before they were known for banner museum projects, DS+R were pioneers of an experimental strategy that combined an expanded idea of function with a dynamic approach to form. At BAMPFA, as in past projects, surfaces collide and melt into each other; the balcony café doubles as a lofted viewing platform for the art below; the volume housing the theater is pulled up to reveal new basement-level offices, and these in turn are visible from the street through a diagonal cut in the new north-facing façade. The intended effect is to make the experience of the building a seamless progression through spaces that never settle into one particular identity or the other, but are always shading into something else, cast back into the realm of potentiality.

Photoby Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro;EHDD;andUC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

It's a tactic that works well with the museum's uniquely variegated mission, which combines a broad collection of regional, American and international art with the digital and multi-media holdings of the Pacific Film Archive. The new building sees the two institutions under the same roof for the first time; it's a little unclear how the alchemy between the two is going to work in practice, but that only makes their fluid, not-overly-determined new home seem all the more appropriate. And then too indeterminacy—along with debate, and flux, and yes confrontation—has always been part of the native culture of Berkeley, making the new BAMPFA a natural fit. Even on the night of the opening, when a stretch of Oxford Street near the campus was closed to accommodate the well-heeled donors attending the gala dinner, most Berkeleyites didn't seem to mind. Mellowness, it's worth remembering, is also an East Bay value.