Brutal love.

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.

The interior of the Berkeley Art Museum.

The 2001 upgrade was really only a partial seismic retrofit – just enough to keep the museum open while they planned for a new facility. Funds were raised for a complete retrofit, but the folks at UC still weren’t embracing this building, which was suddenly deemed ill equipped to handle the latest multimedia installations. (Um, films? For which you need … walls?) Claiming that they needed space, the Pacific Film Archive Theater moved to “temporary” campus quarters in 1999, but has not moved back.

The goal of having a new museum in downtown Berkeley became the mantra, all the while, Ciampi’s design, wearing the stigma of being “seismically inadequate” awaited its fate. Ten years and a handful of (albeit small) earthquakes later, the BAM remains open despite the claims that it’s needy of attention, stubborn about how its space is used, ill equipped to try new kinds of installations, too far from public transportation and poorly located because it’s not downtown.

In the 2001 seismic retrofit, black steel columns were added to the exterior (left) and white steel columns to the interior (right).

In 2005, the building was slated for demolition, and architect Mario Ciampi was still proposing solutions to save it until his death at age 99 in 2006. “Now we have a seismic problem,” said Ciampi, “but I have not received a seismic report.” One of the architect’s ideas was to add an extension that would house a museum store and act like a brace. But the university was already wooing another architect, smitten with a shiny new plan for a visual arts center by Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

But after toying with Toyo, UC cancelled those plans in 2009, citing economic challenges and the weak economy. The goal then shifted to a retrofit of the former University of California Press printing plant (which was going to be razed to make room for Ito’s design). “The adaptive reuse of an older building is the greenest thing you can do,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf. And while I agree, one has to wonder why the same can’t be said for the Ciampi building.

At top, Aristide Maillol’s 1922 sculpture “La Douleur” (“grief” in French) awaits the museum’s fate. Below, Alexander Calder’s “The Hawk for Peace” (1968) greets museum visitors of all ages.

There have been suggestions that the Ciampi building will saved, given an $80 million retrofit (the funds have been raised), and used for another purpose (let’s just be friends) – but nothing specific has been identified. So, while the art center sits by the phone waiting to hear about upcoming plans, the university’s long-range development map suggests a new campus building might be earmarked for the Ciampi site. 

As with all relationships, it’s important to compromise, and perhaps there’s a lesson in Alexander Calder’s sculpture near the museum’s entrance. Titled “The Hawk for Peace,” we should consider that “hawk” can also be a verb. 

Gwendolyn Horton