A Berkeley Museum Wrapped in Honeycomb
BERKELEY, Calif. — I have no idea whether, in this dismal economic climate, the University of California will find the money to build its new art museum here. But if it fails, it will be a blow to those of us who champion provocative architecture in the United States.
Designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the three-story structure suggests an intoxicating architectural dance in which the push and pull between solitude and intimacy, stillness and motion, art and viewer never ends. Its contoured galleries, whose honeycomb pattern seems to be straining to contain an untamed world, would make it a magical place to view art.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, however, Mr. Ito’s design underscores just what is at stake as so many building projects hang in the balance. On a local level, the museum could help break down the divide between the ivory tower at the top of the hill and the gritty neighborhood at the bottom. More broadly, it could introduce an American audience to one of the world’s greatest and most underrated talents, sending out creative ripples that can only be imagined.
The museum would replace the existing Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a bunkerlike building completed in 1970 that was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Standing on a rough commercial strip at the campus’s southern edge, the old building is still marred by the big steel columns that were installed after the quake to support its cantilevered floors. Its rough, angular concrete forms and oddly shaped galleries are awkward settings for art.
The new museum would rise several blocks away, at the seam between the main entrance to the university’s leafy hillside campus and Berkeley’s downtown area. Mr. Ito conceived the design as part of a drawn-out public promenade, and he has packed the bookstore, a cafe, a gallery, a 256-seat theater and a flexible “black box” onto the ground floor. The more contemplative galleries, which include spaces for temporary exhibitions and the museum’s permanent collections of Western and Asian art, are on the second and third floors.
In the renderings the building’s creamy white exterior vaguely resembles a stack of egg cartons that has been sliced off at one end to expose the matrix of contoured chambers inside. The forms peel away at various points to create doorways and open up tantalizing, carefully controlled views into the interiors, as if the building’s facade had been slowly eroding over the millenniums.
Teasingly voyeuristic, the effect brings to mind partly demolished buildings and the aura of intimate secrets about to be revealed. But Mr. Ito is not interested in simply obliterating boundaries, as you would with a conventional glass box. His aim is to create a relaxed relationship between private and public life: while acknowledging that contemporary museums are often hives of social activity, he understands that they can also be places where we want to hide from one another and lose ourselves in the art.
The ground floor is conceived as an intense, compressed version of the surrounding street grid. Once inside, visitors will have to pay to enter a formal temporary gallery just to the right of the main entry. Or they can slip around it and follow the procession through the more informal interstitial spaces, which will be used for video art and site-specific installations. The theater and black box space are tucked away in the back.
Mr. Ito once said that he would like to create spaces that are like “eddies in a current of water.” The interstitial spaces seem to swell open and close up to regulate the movement of people through the building; the self-contained, honeycomblike spaces, by contrast, produce a sense of suspension rather than enclosure, as if you were hovering momentarily before stepping back into the stream.
As you ascend through the museum, this effect intensifies, and the spaces become more contemplative. The main staircase is enclosed in one of the contoured volumes, giving you psychological distance from the activity below. Once you reach the main gallery floors, the experience becomes more focused: the rhythm through the rooms is broken only occasionally, when a wall peels back to allow glimpses of the city.
Mr. Ito has positioned most of the doorways in the galleries’ contoured corners, which allows for a maximum of uninterrupted wall space for the art while emphasizing the rooms’ sensual curves. Most of the galleries have a single opening; others are contained in interstitial spaces, part of the general flow through the building. The contrast, which creates unexpected perspectives, has more to do with Tiepolo’s heavens than with Mondrian’s grids.
As with all of Mr. Ito’s work, the building’s structural system is not an afterthought but a critical element of the ideas that drive the design. The honeycomb pattern gives the building a remarkable structural firmness, allowing for walls only a few inches thick. Made of steel plates sandwiched around concrete, they will have a smooth, unbroken surface that should underscore the museum’s fluid forms. The tautness of the bent steel should also heighten the sense of tension.
Of course, Mr. Ito is still fine-tuning his design, and critical decisions have yet to be made. Museum officials plan to eliminate two 30-foot-high galleries that were part of the original proposal to add wall space and cut costs. This is unfortunate: the soaring spaces would tie the building together vertically and create voids on the upper floors that would add to the sense of mystery.
The museum is also pushing to make the curved corners in the galleries more compact to add still more wall space, which could create an impression that the art is crammed in.
For decades now, Mr. Ito has ranked among the leading architects who have reshaped the field by infusing their designs with the psychological, emotional and social dimensions that late Modernists and Post-Modernists ignored. They have replaced an architecture of purity with one of emotional extremes. The underlying aim is less an aesthetic one than a mission to create a more elastic, and therefore tolerant, environment.These ideas have found their firmest footing in Europe and Japan and are now filtering into the mainstream here. It would be a shame to leave Mr. Ito out of that cultural breakthrough. The museum would not only be an architectural tour de force but would also introduce him to a broad American audience, stirring an imaginative reawakening in a country that sorely needs it.