A Reborn Museum in Berkeley Offers Form as an Essential Fact of Existence

May 26, 2016
The Bay Area has defied some heavy odds by opening two outstanding, transformative museum structures in less than four months. Most recent and prominent is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's large, stunning addition to its 1995 Mario Botta building: an innovative Snohetta design that expands the gallery space to 170,000 square feet, from 70,000.

But earlier, at the end of January, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive unveiled an equally inspired if much smaller home, in a Deco-style former printing plant enlarged and redesigned by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the architects behind the Broad in Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the current expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art and the High Line park in Chelsea.

Both of these Bay Area projects represent a new ease with museums' increasingly complex roles as social and educational entities that accommodate a full range of artistic disciplines. They also share two user-friendly touches that should become museum trends: elevator doors printed with floor directories and an amphitheater, or Roman steps, located invitingly near the entrance. While the San Francisco Museum's steps are of pale, finely textured maple, Berkeley's are of relatively loud, brightly knotty Canary Island Pine designed and fabricated by the wood joinery master craftsman Paul Discoe from seven trees removed to make way for the expansion.

These steps allow close examination of Qiu Zhijie's 24-by-63-foot mural "The World Garden," an eye-catching expanse of detail and graphic energy that reimagines the world primarily as a Chinese garden. The mural inaugurates a biannual series of commissions planned for the wall and, for the moment, is prelude to "Architecture of Life," the visionary inaugural exhibition (through Sunday), which uses the museum's entire 25,000 square feet of gallery space. The show has been organized by Lawrence Rinder, a curator at Berkeley from 1988 to 1998, who returned as its director in 2008. The born-again Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is very much his achievement. And the show, which combines art and artifacts from different cultures and several varieties of old and new scientific research, seems to represent Mr. Rinder's years of looking, thinking and connecting.

Snohetta made the best of the San Francisco Museum's stiff Botta building by largely overwhelming it. Diller Scofidio & Renfrow started from a structure with much better bones: a large single-story factory shed with vaulting ceilings and saw-tooth skylights perfect gallery material attached to a slightly taller three-story administrative building, both made of cast concrete newly painted gleaming white.

Expanding downward, the architects excavated beneath the factory space, made possible those Roman steps and created a lower level that feels surprisingly light and capacious. It holds more galleries, an art-class area and three study centers.

Above ground they capitalized on the right angle formed by the meeting of the factory and the administrative wing, adding a playful elegant element that remains sculpturally distinct while locking everything together. The addition, clad in Airstream-like stainless steel, seems essentially folded and draped across the existing buildings. The narrow portion atop the factory houses a cafe with views of the galleries and Roman steps; it extends over the museum's front entrance, creating a boxy canopy. To the rear of the building, the cladding fans outward, sheathing a much larger ground-floor space, which contains the main theater of the Pacific Film Archive. Fittingly, it culminates in a giant outdoor digital screen facing the street that resembles a television set of late 1980s vintage.

While the addition can initially look awkward, as if a big flat spaceship had alighted on the building, it promises to wear well, because the interior spaces are varied and unfold with logic and surprises. This may be Scofidio, Diller & Renfro's best museum design and possibly cause for optimism about its work on the Museum of Modern Art, although the bones it is working with there are not so good.

"Architecture of Life" is not your father's theme show in that its organizational principle is not a literary conceit but a visual phenomenon: It centers on form as an essential fact of existence, inherent in all human activities, throughout nature, explored by scientists, pursued by painters and composers. At a moment when form receives short shrift from younger artists, it plays out here in architectural models and plans, and in works by artists familiar and not. Here are Wilson Bentley's photographs of snowflakes from the 1920s; Ernst Haeckel's drawings of oceanic protozoa (from around 1860) and Santiago Ramon y Cajal's lacy ink drawings of gray matter in the cerebral cortex, from the turn of the 20th century. And there are several spectacular examples of real lace, mostly from 16th- and 17th-century Italy, lent by the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley.

Mr. Rinder has cashed in chips far and wide. The show includes several Pomo baskets from the university's museum of anthropology and turned-wood bowls by Bob Stockdale from the Oakland Museum of California, along with the improvisational quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006), from Oakland, one of this country's least-known great artists. European loans include Johannes Itten's abstract painting "Encounter" (1916), which depicts the color spectrum as a spiral, and Gustav Caillebotte's 1876 Impressionist masterpiece "Pont de l'Europe," depicting a massive bridge in Paris.

Everything mirrors and enhances everything else in this superb show. Between the Berkeley museum's new home and its inspired initial use of its galleries, its future looks very bright.

The New York Times
By Roberta Smith
Photo by Iwan Baan, via Diller Scifidio + Renfro, EHDD and BAMPFA