Lawrence Rinder by Ben Blackwell
Lawrence Rinder. Photo: Ben Blackwell

Yesterday, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive announced it had begun construction work on its new building in downtown Berkeley.

The UC Berkeley-owned museum has raised the lion’s share of the $100 million it needs to create a new home for itself on Center Street at Oxford, on the fringes of the Cal campus.

BAM/PFA is set to move from its current location on Bancroft Way into the new space, designed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in early 2016.

Berkeleyside caught up with BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder to find out what the dramatic new building will mean for the museum and for the city of Berkeley.

What the new museum will offer

Rinder lists five key benefits to the new space. “We will have a seismically safe building,” he said. The reason BAM/PFA needs to move is that in 1997 its current building on Bancroft Way, built in 1970 and designed by Mario Campio, was deemed seismically unsafe by present-day standards.

“The location of the new museum is a vast improvement,” he continued. “It will be one block from BART, which means its programs will be accessible to anyone in the Bay Area and beyond.” The current museum is on Bancroft Way at College Avenue on the south-east corner of campus. The new museum will be directly opposite UC Berkeley’s main entrance on Oxford Street.

BAM:PFA from Center Street
The main entrance to the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Center Street. Rendering: Courtesy of UC Regents

“We are hoping to gain a huge new and diverse audience while maintaining our core audience based around UC Berkeley and Berkeley,” Rinder said, adding that the new cultural destination should give a boost to the city, attracting more visitors to the downtown.

The move will allow the art museum to be reunited with the Pacific Film Archive under one roof. (The Pacific Film Archive moved to a temporary building across the street in 1991.) “This is the first time the film gallery and the theater will share the same entrance,” said Rinder. BAM/PFA is unique among museums nationwide in the symbiotic relationship it has established between art and film. “It’s a moment to affirm and celebrated that relationship,” he said. Rinder estimated Pacific Film Archive organizes about 400 screenings a year with many live presentations. But PFA is not just a venue for screenings, it is also a museum of film. Rinder said BAM/PFA has around the same number of films as artworks: approximately 14,000.

PFA screening room
The new facility will include a purpose-built theater for PFA. Rendering: Courtesy of UC Regents

The new space will include a purpose-built theater, another first. “Our current theater needed to be adapted as it was not designed specifically to present films,” he said. “The new one will have all the sight-lines and sound systems needed to make the experience of watching a film optimal.” He added that there will be an additional small theater as part of the new facility which can be used for educational purposes, among other things.

Rinder said he is excited about the versatility offered by the new museum’s design. He said that, as much as he loved the current building, it presented challenges for exhibiting, not least in terms of light and sound. “The new building is designed so that people can have diverse experiences of appreciating art, whether it needs to be light or dark, a big space or a smaller space,” he said.

“There will also be 100% more dedicated space for education,” Rinder continued. That includes meeting rooms, a library, film study center and works on paper study area. “We also plan to have a participatory place for people to make art,” he said. “Making art really helps you experience art.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the new museum will in fact offer fewer square feet than the Campio-designed building on Bancroft Way. But, as Rinder points out, it is far from being an apples to apples comparison. “Our current building has a 7,000 sq ft atrium but a lot of the space here isn’t useable,” he said. Although the new building will in fact offer less overall space in terms of square footage, it will have 30% more useable space.

The long countdown

Renderings for a $143 million museum designed by “starchitect” Toyo Ito which was dropped for lack of funds in 1999

BAM/PFA began planning for a new location 16 years ago in 1997. In 1999 UC Berkeley abandoned its plan to construct a new $143 million museum designed by “starchitect” Toyo Ito due to a shortage of funds. The recession impacted progress and, Rinder said, the process had certainly felt like “forever” for those staffers who have worked at the museum for many years. (Rinder was appointed director of BAM/PFA in 2008.) “I am tremendously grateful to the people who stuck with this and who were dedicated to making it happen,” he said.

The “bold new” architecture

BAM drama
Rinder: “[The new museum” repurposes a wonderful Art Deco building while bringing in something new.” Rendering: Courtesy UC Regents
Rinder: “[The new museum” repurposes a wonderful Art Deco building while bringing in something new.” Rendering: Courtesy UC Regents

Diller Scofidio + Renfro design bold, striking modern buildings — their portfolio includes the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts redevelopment project, the High Line in New York, the Creative Arts Center at Brown University, the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro, and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Berkeley has not seen many contemporary buildings of the like of this new museum — unless, as Rinder points out, you include the existing museum.

“There is one precedent for modern architecture in Berkeley, and that’s our current building,” he said. “We want our new space to live up to that. From the first minute you see our building you know it’s something special. You expect the unexpected. That’s appropriate for Berkeley which has a history of thinking differently. But Berkeley also has a tradition of honoring the past, and, in that way, the new building is the best of both worlds. It repurposes a wonderful Art Deco building while bringing in something new. I think it’s going to be a really dramatic new element but the scale will be appropriate for the city and not overwhelming. I hope it becomes a landmark.”

Asked if UC Berkeley or the museum had had any pushback from the community about the unapologetically contemporary design, Rinder said they had received very few negative comments. “That’s what kept us going in our darkest days,”he said. “We had equal enthusiasm from Town and Gown.”

The future for the existing BAM/PFA building

The current BAM/PFA building on Bancroft Way was built in 1970 and is seismically unsafe by today’s standards. Photo: Michael Layefsky
The current BAM/PFA building on Bancroft Way was built in 1970 and is seismically unsafe by today’s standards. Photo: Michael Layefsky

Rinder concluded by saying that he wasn’t privy to the plans UC Berkeley had for the existing fan-shaped building on Bancroft Way, although he doesn’t think it will be demolished. “I believe the intention is to keep the building,” he said. “If it is possible to make it safe, and it’s affordable and appropriate.”

Work starts on new Berkeley Art Museum, set to open in 2016 [02.12.13]
Palpable possibilities: Berkeley Art Museum’s home awaits [01.25.12]
New Berkeley Art Museum mixes old with eye-catching new [09.16.11]
Berkeley Art Museum selects architects for new home [06.24.11]
Berkeley Art Museum seeks architect, again [05.20.11]
UC Berkeley stands by pledge to fund new art museum [11.25.10]
Berkeley Art Museum plans to revamp printing plant [01.27.10]
What might have been [11.24.09]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...