Like most cities, Berkeley’s built environment is a mishmash of styles, periods and uses that include iconic Craftsman homes of the early 20th century, mid-century ranches in the hills, public spaces like the glass-enclosed downtown BART station and commercial buildings. But how many of these reflect great design? And what is “great design” anyway?

Berkeley Design Advocates has attempted to answer such questions since its founding in 1973. A volunteer organization made up of design professionals and civic advocates, the BDA holds its biennial awards in an attempt to recognize “great design in the built environment,” which is based on “excellence in urban planning and architecture, innovative and creative design solutions and preservation of historic structures.”

The five projects that made up this year’s winners were honored at a public ceremony held April 17 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater.

“The intent of the BDA Design Awards is to recognize projects that stand out relative to the mainstream so we can encourage better design,” said this year’s design awards chair Michael Robbins, an architect and the founder and principal of Studio Robbins Cortina in Berkeley. 

The BDA’s long-standing biennial awards, now in its 15th year, also act as a de facto indicator of trends and perhaps harbingers of what to expect in the near future. Since its last awards in 2021, for example, the organization has observed a shift away from submissions of commercial office and retail spaces in favor of multi-family residential projects in light of the city’s housing boom. 

“We are seeing many more residential buildings and higher density buildings,” said BDA’s longtime president Anthony Bruzzone, a transportation planner and an associate principal at Arup in Oakland and longtime Berkeley resident. “Most of this activity is directly related to state law changes that streamline housing project approvals.”

Robbins noted that most of the new housing is located along the city’s major arteries: Shattuck, San Pablo and Telegraph avenues. “We expect that to continue and perhaps include arteries in less developed places in the city,” he said. 

In determining which projects reflect “great design,” the jurors are not considering a particular architectural style, noted John King, a Berkeley resident and the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, a BDA juror for the third time. They’re looking for design that is about “providing a good public realm, working well on the sidewalk and being done in a way that feels like it’s part of a continuum,” he said.

“Even if it’s a bigger structure, it’s building on what’s around it. Even if it’s a very contemporary building, it’s taking cues from what sort of district it’s in,” he said. “All this is subjective, but what’s important in a setting like Berkeley, and especially in the more commercial areas, is how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together rather than how the individual pieces look.”

In terms of aesthetics, King noted that contemporary continues to be the prevailing style, partly because much of the housing is geared toward students, who favor that look. 

King also observed a growing trend toward communal outdoor spaces. Unlike apartment buildings of old with their individual terraces, new projects offer shared outdoor areas, as reflected in the rooftop spaces at the Aquatic Shattuck and The Laureate on Telegraph Avenue, both winning projects. 

Design issues are important, King noted, because they will “add up to a very substantive generation of buildings that will be the landscape for future generations. So it’s important to emphasize details we — architects, developers and city reviewers — will be paying attention to going forward, the whole question of how to make this generation work as well as it can with long-term viability of the city in mind.”

This year’s winning projects were chosen from a pool of 13 projects nominated by their sponsors or architects and judged by an independent jury.

In addition to King, jurists were: Emily Marthinsen, retired assistant vice chancellor and campus architect at UC Berkeley; Daniel Gregory, architectural historian and former Sunset magazine home editor whose most recent book is The New Farm: Contemporary Rural Architecture; and Anne M. Torney, architect and Partner at the architecture and design firm Mithun in San Francisco. All the judges, save for Gregory, are Berkeley residents. 

Here are the winners and what the judges had to say about them:

Hope Center, 2020 Berkeley Way

Berkeley Design Advocates praised Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects’ Hope Center for bringing together its various uses with a “unified” and “highly dynamic facade.” Credit: Bruce Damonte

San Francisco’s Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects designed this joint affordable housing and homeless services center developed by the Berkeley Food & Housing Project (BFHP) and BRIDGE Housing. The judges described the project as “architecture that elevates us all.” 

The Hope Center’s glass-enclosed stairway that “animates the street,” according to the BDA judges. Credit: Bruce Damonte

The development includes 89 apartments for low and very-low income families, as well as 53 supportive housing apartments, a 32-bed homeless shelter and 12 transitional beds for homeless veterans. 

On Berkeley Way, the entries of the family housing on the left and the HOPE Center on the right flank a garden and an “inviting sunlight dining room open to all in need of a meal.” Additional design choices like a double-height lobby and active glassy stair added to make this complex “responsive to occupants and city alike.”

Mosaic Boulders, 2369 Telegraph Ave.

Trachtenberg Architects won another design award for its “ingenious remodel” of a Telegraph Avenue storefront for Mosaic Boulders. Courtesy: Trachtenberg Architects

The judges described Berkeley’s Trachtenberg Architects’ seismic upgrade, remodel and conversion of a nondescript storefront into a bouldering facility as “ingenious” and “a true gift to the street.” Its most striking feature: a glass facade that “puts everything on stage” and connects the action taking place indoors to passersby on the street. 

“What had been an ordinary building is now ready for its closeup,” according to the judges. 

The Aquatic Shattuck, 2640 Shattuck Ave.

Trachtenberg Architects’ design for the Aquatic Shattuck received a design award from the Berkeley Design Advocates. The building was praised for its use of cladding, color and “inviting civility” at ground level. Courtesy: Trachtenberg Architects

Trachtenberg Architects is also behind this six-story, 78-unit apartment building, which the judges called “a welcome contrast” from the arbitrary look of too many of Berkeley’s newer housing projects, “with cladding materials and surface colors slapped on to try and make squat forms like something other than what they are.” 

In addition to praising the architects’ choice of cladding and color, the jurors also noted how the building’s outward bays bring “a pedestrian scale” to the storefronts along Shattuck. “Put everything together and this is thoughtful urban architecture that not only knows its place, but adds to it in the process,” they wrote.

The Laureate, 2556 Telegraph Ave.

Judges of this year’s design awards called the Laureate “a welcome anchor” amidst a “hodgepodge of buildings in all styles and scales” on Telegraph Avenue. Courtesy: Pyatok Architecture

The jurors praised the exterior of this 22-unit luxury apartment building for students designed by Oakland’s Pyatok Architecture. “In most parts of Berkeley, a five-story corner building clad in emphatic dark brick would seem aggressive or misplaced,” the judges wrote. “Here, on a wide stretch of Telegraph Avenue lined by a hodgepodge of buildings in all styles and scales, it’s a welcome anchor.” 

The Laureate’s lobby. Courtesy: Pyatok Architecture

The judges also had a couple of critiques: The craftsmanship of the brick skin “could be better” and “an awkward shift to fiber cement lap siding” on the building’s western edge. “But the stepped-down woodsy cladding helps the large new building settle in behind its neighbors” and its Telegraph Avenue side “sets a good example for other architects and developers to follow as our commercial corridors fill in and grow up.”

770 Page Street Townhouses, 770 Page St.

770 Page Street Townhouses won a design award for its “careful planning and design.” Courtesy: Wadlund + Design Studio

Designed by Berkeley’s Wadlund + Design Studio, this four-townhouse development shows “how, with careful planning and design, small project interventions can be an important part of our shared housing crisis — and, at the same time, improve our urban neighborhoods,” the judges wrote. 

The project incorporates many sustainable elements, has a scale that doesn’t overwhelm and boasts residential forms that have “just enough drama to feel playful and contemporary,” according to the judges. 

Berkeley’s Wadland + Design Studio also did the landscape design at 770 Page Street Townhouses. Courtesy: Wadland + Design Studio

They also pointed out how the townhouses connect to pedestrians and the neighborhood at large. Passersby can glimpse garden entries and are not blocked from entering the mews, adding to “the feeling that these townhouses are part of the community around them.”

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...