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Art and Film Museum Given Modern Makeover

Aerial rendering view from the northeast of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive
The University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive will be reimagined with the addition of a freeform exhibition gallery between the existing printing building and administration wing. Courtesy of UC Regents

The University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is being seismically upgraded and architecturally improved with a modern addition that makes the community the star.

March 5, 2013—The University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) was founded in 1963 thanks to a donation from the abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman, who donated 45 paintings and $250,000 to launch the museum. The seed money helped fund the museum’s first home, a fan-shaped building at the southern edge of the University of California, Berkeley campus that opened in 1970.

The PFA, with a collection that includes more than 14,000 films and videos, joined the BAM in the Mario Ciampi-designed building in 1971. But a 1997 survey of university facilities found that the fan-shaped museum didn’t meet current seismic standards. Bracing was added to enable the building to remain open, but it was not meant as a permanent fix; seismically the building was still considered inadequate.

Over the course of the last decade, the BAM/PFA launched an ambitious $200-million project to replace the museum with a new facility. Designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the proposal resembled, ironically, a house of cards, with a lattice of curving steel walls. But the project was felled by the recession, and the university ultimately decided on a less expensive, $100-million project.

Construction on the new home for BAM/PFA, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was recently begun. The new space will retrofit the university’s old printing plant, located at the western edge of campus, right where the campus transitions into downtown. The printing building, built in 1939 and vacant since 2004, is a one-story 48,000 sq ft Moderne-style building with a sawtooth roof of clerestory windows connected to a three-story administration wing. The charter of the United Nations was printed there in 1945. 

 Aerial view rendering of Addison Street Plaza and Barbro Osher Theater

A signature element of the new addition is the massive
light-emitting diode (LED) viewing screen, which works with the
landscape architecture to draw visitors. Courtesy of UC Regents

The new museum will provide 30 more linear ft for exhibitions, a 30-seat screening room for researchers or classes, a 230-seat theater, a cafe, and an outdoor video screen. “Programmatically, it’s really going to be a monument for downtown,” says Geoff Bomba, S.E., a senior associate with Forell/Elsesser Engineers, of San Francisco, the structural engineers for the project. While the second iteration of the new museum is largely the same as Ito’s plan programmatically, architecturally they are very different. “This latest iteration utilized the historical structure and embraces it and ties together with a new free-form element,” Bomba explains. That free-form element is a striking metal addition that will slide between the one-story printing wing and the three-story administration wing.

In response to written questions from Civil Engineering online, Zoe Small, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, the project leader for Diller Scofidio, described the project as an opportunity to link the disciplines of film and art: “The … body of the PFA draped between adjacent orthogonal structures and snagged on their sharp corners creates a public spine bridging film and art, new and old, dark and light,” Small said. “Through a language of adaptive reuse, excavation and surgical additions, the existing Press Building will house the art museum program.” Small says that large daylit galleries are formed by double-story walls within the existing shed’s shell. “The form of the PFA reinterprets 1930’s Streamline Moderne style of the Press Building in a contemporary language of ruled surfaces and precision-formed stainless steel,” Small explained.

But first, designers and engineers must improve the printing plant’s seismic performance. Currently, both sections of the building are connected. “Part of the seismic deficiency of the existing building is this connection, which is not very good,” says Bomba. “It’s a seismically poor building.” Structurally, the three-story administration building is very rigid, while the printing building is more flexible. The plan is to separate the two buildings structurally to enable each building to “be what they want to be,” he says, making them both more earthquake resistant.

 Exterior rendering of art and film museum from the intersection of Oxford and Center Street

The design, which includes significant seismic upgrades, includes
a cafe cantilevered over Center Street. Courtesy of UC Regents

Engineers will also have to cope with plans to increase gallery space by adding a 17,000 sq ft basement beneath the existing printing plant—where, essentially, no basement currently exists. To accommodate this, workers will have to remove the clerestory roof of the printing plant while the basement is added. The same site shoring that will be used to support the excavation work for the basement will support the perimeter walls.  

“Being very close to the Hayward Fault—less than a kilometer from the site—the building is going to see some very strong shaking,” Bomba says. “We’ve had to make sure the lateral system is strong enough to resist the load but also capable of absorbing the energy from the earthquake.”

The roof’s steel elements will be cut out, stored off-site, and brought back. While the clerestory windows bring in lots of light, they also create a gap in the load path of the roof structures. “We have to reconnect the roofs together so that they can act as one roof. What that means is we have bracing that goes through the windows to allow that connection to happen,” says Bomba.

Putting a new basement in the press building also meant that the adjacent three-story administration wing would be impacted. “When you put in a new basement below the sawtooth, you’re also undermining this existing concrete building that’s next door,” Bomba says. “So another major challenge of this project is how do you put in a 16-foot-deep basement next to a 45-foot tall old concrete building? It’s really equivalent to open heart surgery.”

Because the new basement will be much deeper than the foundation for the administration building, once crews start digging, the taller building would fall over if not supported. So the engineers are devising a structural shoring concept—not yet finalized—to literally suspend the three-story building in the air. It’s unclear now whether the building will be suspended all at once or in stages, but in all likelihood beams fed through windows on the first floor will be supported on piles on either side of the building to transfer the load off the building’s columns.

Interior rendering of multi-purpose gallery

The new museum will provide 30 more linear ft for exhibitions, a
30-seat screening room for researchers or classes, and a 230-seat
theater. Courtesy of UC Regents

Because the two building sections are being cut apart, the administration building will be left with a C-shaped structure, missing a crucial shear wall. A new and stronger shear wall will be built to form a fourth wall, and builders will also install new elevators and stairs into the three-story wing.

Slicing through the two sections of the printing plant will be a striking new structure that will house a second-story cafe and then enlarge dramatically to house the Barbro Osher Theater.

Small describes it this way: “At one end, the new addition houses a theater in its belly, an internal organ pressing on the metal membrane. The belly hovers above an open excavation, exposing library and film storage to the public. The other end of the form is counterbalanced by a cafe dramatically cantilevered over Center Street.”

Bomba likens the new form to the shape of a whale. The theater is like the front of the whale, a large orb that touches down on the northeast side of the building. The new structure rises and narrows, resting atop the one-story printing building, and culminating in a cafe, located, as it were, in the “tail” of the addition. “It’s no accident that the new is bright, shiny stainless steel, and the existing is old, nonductile concrete,” he says. “And it’s very in-your-face, the difference between the two, which is part of the design.”

More dramatic is how the theater connects to the ground. Bomba says the architectural vision was to make the theater space appear to be floating. “When you’re walking around the building, you’ll see this stainless steel structure comes down to the ground, but instead of it attaching to the ground, you’ll be able to see the element go below the ground.” This effect is achieved by ringing the ground around the theater space with a glass sidewalk that you can walk on and peer through, down to the lower levels of the structure. (The archive, he says, will be housed below the theater.)

Bomba notes that this makes for a challenging structural system. The engineers have to make sure there’s a fuse in the system to dissipate energy and make sure loads are transferred properly to the perimeter walls. Transfer girders will take gravity load out to the perimeter, while fingerlike transfer diaphragms will connect the theater orb to the perimeter and transfer seismic shear.

Above, the theater uses buckling restrained braced frames, which can absorb tension and compression forces in roughly equal amounts to protect the integrity of the theater in case of earthquake.

An outside centerpiece planned for the site is a large 32 by 16 ft light-emitting diode (LED) TV screen that would be mounted to the back wall of the theater.

The landscape architecture will also play a crucial role in bringing together the town and the university. Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, a senior principal of the landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, says that on the university side the building will have a “very institutional connection to the university.” Rather than use trees, in an area where space is tight and foliage might obscure that connection, designers will install rain gardens that can treat storm water. The landscape architects are also planning a plaza and an adjoining native plant garden.

When it opens in 2016, the new museum is poised to contribute to the vitality of downtown Berkeley, an arts hub for the East Bay. It’s home to the Berkeley Repertory Theater, the Aurora Theater, the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse arts organization, and the Bancroft Library Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. John Caner, the chief executive officer of the Downtown Berkeley Association, thinks the museum can serve as a flagship for arts downtown. “Moving to downtown within a couple of blocks of BART and the center of the city, we think it’s going to bring thousands of visitors to downtown,” he says.



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