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Inside UC Berkeley’s ‘Wonderfully Normal’ New Art and Film Museum

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive bids farewell to the brutalist death trap of yore. 


The lobby beneath the Barbro Osher Theater.

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Inside the Barbro Osher Theater, which will host 450 cinematic events in 2016.

Photo: Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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The third-level terrace is home to the beloved campus café, Babette, which hangs over the Center Street sidewalk.

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A rendering of the new BAMPFA shows how architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro incorporated the bones of the 1939 UC Printing Plant.

Photo: Courtesy of Diller Scofido + Renfro

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The design of the theater allows natural light to travel down to the new BAMPFA Film Library and Study Center. At night, lights glow from below.

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The former home of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive was always a bit of a problem child. “It was amazing, unique, and endlessly challenging,” says the museum’s director, Lawrence Rinder, of architect Mario Ciampi’s brutalist concrete fortress on the southeast edge of UC Berkeley’s main campus. Given its towering concrete walls and lack of four-sided rooms, its galleries were, as Rinder puts it, “somewhat oddly proportioned.” Its location on Bancroft Way, far from the city’s bustling downtown, left it largely underutilized by anyone other than hardcore art aficionados or students cutting through on their way to and from campus. But the true nail in Ciampi’s concrete coffin was its vulnerability to earthquakes: Following a 1997 assessment, the university declared the building a brutalist death trap. And now, nearly 19 years later, the $112 million BAMPFA has arrived.

Nineteen years is a long time to build a museum, for which you can thank the Great Recession. (Bad economic times in 2009 doomed plans to commission Japanese starchitect Toyo Ito.) But the new building, which opens on January 31, may be worth even that interminable wait. Designed by architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (the New York outfit responsible for revitalizing the High Line), it reunites the art museum with the film archive—which had been exiled to a lecture hall across Bancroft Way for around a decade.

The new off-campus museum also figures to no longer be a civic afterthought: Located along the booming Center Street corridor, it’s readily accessible to the general public. The 83,000-square-foot building is home to the state-of-the-art Barbro Osher Theater, equipped with a $250,000 Meyer sound system and slated to show 450 screenings this year alone. And as for the art museum, it has 25,000 square feet of what Rinder describes as “wonderfully normal” space in which to host exhibitions and showcase an encyclopedic collection of over 19,000 works of art. Outside on Addison Street is a 31-by-17-foot LED screen that the museum hopes to use for outdoor screenings of films from both its own collection and outside sources (moviegoers can even sit on a grassy knoll).

On a recent hard hat tour, Rinder, whose résumé includes time with New York’s MOMA and as a contemporary art curator at the Whitney, was quick to draw comparisons to the Bay Area’s most-buzzed-about cultural addition, the new SFMOMA, set to open in May, despite the fact that BAMPFA is only a 10th of the size of San Francisco’s soon-to-be modern art mecca. Rinder believes that the institutions will benefit from one another. “If anything, our move to downtown Berkeley has perfect synergy with SFMOMA’s renovation,” he says, noting that visitors drawn to the Bay Area by SFMOMA may want to see his museum as well. “Not counting the BART ride, we’re only three blocks from each other.”

And BAMPFA has one thing that SFMOMA does not: the Osher Theater, an architectural illusion of sorts. Viewed from within the lobby, the theater seems to float in space, its angled ceiling unattached to the side walls. That openness is complemented by glass walls on the north side of the room that overlook the BAMPFA Film Library and Study Center, a level below, whose collection of over 250,000 objects related to cinematic history—including the largest collection of Japanese cinema outside of Japan—has earned the archive international renown. “This is going to be the optimal cinematic experience,” says Rinder. Feels good to finally be able to show it off.

Originally published in the January issue of
San Francisco

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