UC Berkeley has had a decades-long on again, off again love affair with the Brutalist structure designed by Mario Ciampi for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). Built in 1970, the building was the largest university art museum of its time. A behemoth of site-cast concrete, the fan-shaped building lacks wow-factor from the street, but when you walk into the courtyard, it engages you with its gravity-defying spans of (originally unsupported) cantilevered concrete. Inside it’s organized chaos. Satisfying in how the floors and ceilings mirror each other, creating the essence of walls where there are none, while natural light coming through skylights softens the grayness, and makes the artwork pop.
The Berkeley Art Museum entrance on Bancroft Way (left). The cantilevered sections that fan out as you walk around the building (right).
Despite its bunker-like appearance, the structure was designed as two axes (aligned with the energy centers in the Egyptian zodiac – lest you forget we’re in Berkeley) that rest on just five columns. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake seriously undermined the building’s long cantilevered sections, and that’s when the romance began to crumble. Topping the list of the “most unsafe buildings on campus” (it’s not you, it’s me), the Ciampi building was given a $4 million seismic retrofit in 2001, but that wasn’t enough to restore the broken trust.