Review: Diller Scofidio + Renfro's New Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

A view of the Center Street facade at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
(Photo by Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro; EHDD; and UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA))

BERKELEY, Calif. — Moving from the stark white galleries of the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to a vibrant orange stairwell leading upstairs to the café, I was reminded of somewhere else. Ah, yes. The former Brasserie restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York, which also drew visitors into a glowing, citrus-colored space.

This was not a comparison forced by the fact that Charles Renfro, a partner in the architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, designed both the Brasserie, which opened in 2000 and closed last year, and the museum known as BAMPFA (pronounced bam-P-F-A), which opened on January 31. Nor did it arise from conscious recognition that both projects added sinuous forms and audacious materials to existing modernist boxes: The Brasserie filled a gutted Philip Johnson interior with curved lenticular glass and slabs of pearwood, while BAMPFA is a mutant retrofit of a disused 1939 Moderne printing plant.

Like I said, I wasn’t really thinking about parallels. I only felt I had been at this threshold before, between something cool and cosseting, and something porous and intimate.

This kind of palpable contrast makes sense, given that the building is a well-considered jumble, inside and out. The new BAMPFA brings an encyclopedic art museum of more than 19,000 works together with an archive of more than 17,000 films, demanding a Mutt and Jeff combination of bright, free-flowing galleries and hermetic theaters. And the building encasing them, located across the street from the University of California at Berkeley’s campus, dramatizes the hybrid mission with an arresting juxtaposition: A steel-shingled element drapes over and invades the former printing plant’s rectangular structure. The addition, whose stainless-steel roof had to be installed tile by curved tile, in software-dictated order, has been compared to a pastry bag, but to my eye looked more like a light beam from a projector. It creates striking moments — including the café cantilevering over the main gallery, its interior windows framing patrons as if they were talking heads in a documentary.

The two institutions used to cohabitate in a 1970 Brutalist concrete structure designed by Mario Ciampi on the southeast corner of campus. But a 1997 engineering survey confirmed that the Ciampi building, which was notable for its 7,000 square-foot domed atrium, was poorly made for earthquakes. Bracing completed in 2001 raised the seismic rating from “very poor” to “poor,” and it was clear that more effective supports would compromise the long, unbroken span valued for exhibitions and community events. By then, the Pacific Film Archive had relocated to a nearby space.

In 2008, BAMPFA released a design by Toyo Ito for a new building at the corner of Oxford and Center streets. The museum was attracting about 75,000 visitors each year, largely from the university, and it was hoped that the location, near the main campus entrance and just a block away from a BART rail station, would enlarge and diversify the audience. The site was so felicitous that Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA’s director since 2008, later told a local journalist that he could build a Quonset hut there, and it would be a success. The Ito building was to have curving white stainless steel walls resembling partially drawn curtains and came with a price of $143 million—$200 million factoring in realistic cost overruns.

The timing on the eve of a global economic meltdown could not have been worse. BAMPFA canceled the Ito design in favor of retrofitting the site’s existing structure, the vacant UC Berkeley Press Building constructed as a WPA project by the San Francisco architects Masten and Hurd. In an interview at the time of the opening , Rinder told me that he considered only American architects for the job, to economize on travel expenses. “We were looking at every last saving,” he said. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro was selected from among a group of ten firms that also included Bernard Tschumi, Will Bruder and Tod Williams Billie Tsien. The choice, Rinder said, was based on DS+R’s proven capacity to deal with both still and kinetic artforms” (like the ticker-tape-like digital displays at their redesigned Lincoln Center), its portfolio of “freestanding iconic buildings” as well as repurposed historical ones, and its “track record of sticking to a budget.” That figure was $96 million in 2010, when the new plan was announced. BAMPFA met the final cost of $112 million—an increase that Rinder said was in line with inflation—through a capital campaign plus a university contribution of $20 million.

Among the notable features of the L-shaped press building were a saw-tooth roof, a spiraling Art Deco staircase with a silvery curl of a banister and sensational interior graffiti that had amassed after the structure was vacated in 2004. Among its deficits was a modest 48,000-square-foot-over-three-floors size and a dull wall along Center Street, which one blog commentator described as a “dead zone” that “sucked the life out of that highly traveled path between BART and the U.”

Renfro preserved the roof and organized the 10,000-square-foot main gallery beneath it; the saw teeth create a friendly, shed-like topping and set the tone for the diagonals that run rampant through the museum in counterpoint to the press building’s orthogonal structure. It’s a serene, lovely and to all appearances blameless space to see art.

After thinking about ways to use the graffiti, he got rid of it, though he said that some of it might be lurking behind sheet rock (“I’m really not sure,” he added nervously.)  He consigned the Art Deco staircase to the staff quarters, which are entered on Oxford Street, adding a touch of luxe to a part of the building that appears to have been value engineered down to raw functionality.

He put the public entrance around the corner on Center Street and topped the abhorred wall with a BAMPFA sign in steel supergraphics. Passerspy can look into the lobby and gift shop next to it. Also visible from the street is a 60-by-25-foot interior wall that will showcase a different bespoke artwork every six months. For the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Architecture of Life,” the Art Wall presents “The World Garden” a brushed-ink mural based on the ancient Chinese literati garden, by the Beijing-based artist Qiu Zhijie.

Renfro’s chief task was to find space. The 45,000-square-foot addition, which he calls “the cipher” because of a somewhat mysterious quality it evokes, holds a 232-seat purpose-built cinema (the Barbro Osher theater) as well as the café (Babette, relocated from the former site). Renfro dug underneath the building for another 28,000 square feet, scooping out the Carla and David Crane Forum, a place for people to gather on tiered seating repurposed from Canary Island pine trees from a lot next door to the printing plant, which had been sacrificed to the expansion, and four study centers, where light pours down through both a glass lobby wall and glass strips embedded around the periphery of the building.

Also below grade is a 32-seat film theater, and four connecting gallery rooms, including one dedicated to Himalayan art, with end-grain wood tiling that’s an homage to the printing facility’s floor. (The original wood was so saturated with toxic ink that it couldn’t be recycled.)

BAMPFA activities will spill outdoors as well. A large LED screen is attached to the Addison Street side of the museum at the tail of the cipher, its rectilinear detailing in steel a tribute to the original Art Deco press building. Hundreds of people will be able to watch films there, standing, for now, in a small plaza-like area. Renfro noted that the screen is not just a device for entertainment but also reflective of the cinematic experience on the other side, a symbolic “window” into the big theater, whose own screen is right behind it.  When I mentioned to Lawrence Rinder that a blog comment had offered congratulations for the chance to divert Berkeley’s “bored homeless people,” he laughed and said he would consider programming a film series for them.

Transitions are rarely subtle in this museum, a byproduct of box meeting cipher. Renfro told me his favorite place is a glassy spot just outside the café entrance, where the two elements come together. The oddly scaled wedge—too insubstantial for a gallery, too small for a party—seems to serve little purpose apart from being interesting. (Renfro said it was conceived as a lounge.) Cantilevered over the main floor, it gives a view of a building shard poking through an interior wall—a 2008 artwork by Felix Schramm that’s part of the “Architecture of Life” show. Rinder likened the work to a “serious punch list problem.” It was a compliment.

Renfro may not have intended to comment on the theatricality of Ito’s curtain-raising design, but the new BAMPFA is equally devoted to the idea of spectacle. Even bland spaces offer drama, like the unexpected door in the rear of the gift shop that leads to a downstairs gallery.  It’s a surreptitious moment in a building dedicated to visual connection. Looking up from the main gallery through the triangular café windows at the press opening, I saw Charles Renfro himself, talking to another journalist. Once again I thought of his Brasserie, especially the line of video cameras over the bar that broadcast the arrival of unwitting guests before they themselves became spectators of the drama.

As Bogie would have said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”