Brutalizing Oakland

West
Monday, November 30, 2009
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The main museum entrance is now framed in stainless steel. Photo by Tim Griffith

The main museum entrance is now framed in stainless steel. Photo by Tim Griffith

In the future, will there be a Brutalist Revival? Decked out with stainless steel trimmings by Mark Cavagnero Associates, the Oakland Museum of California is getting ready to usher in a Brutalist appreciation. Or at least a bit of nostalgia for a time when architects couldn’t get enough of the monolithic purity of craggy concrete, before they realized what the environmental costs of melting down rock and reforming it were. The 1969 complex is undergoing the first phase of a $58 million retrofit and will reopen in May 2010.

Most of the building and the gardens will continue just as they were. The original architect, Kevin Roche (who took over the project after Eero Saarinen’s sudden death), effectively created a new topography spanning four city blocks. In a design that puts today’s hoopla over green roofs into perspective, the low terraced buildings are subsumed under the the rooftop gardens and planters in Dan Kiley’s landscape design, with foliage trailing down the tops of walls.

Oakland Square Garden, as seen from above. Photo by T.L. Cheung

Oakland's square garden, as seen from above. Photo by T.L. Cheung

But the low profile of the building, dubbed “the bunker” by locals, doesn’t lend itself to displaying art. (The art gallery is on the top level, with California history below, then natural science–complete with fish tanks–below it, bringing the whole range of museum-going experience together.) In this first phase of the renovation, two courtyards have been transformed into light-filled, white-walled galleries. (The building’s embrace of the outdoors resulted in a few patios that languished in obscurity). At twice the height of the main level, the spaces are a welcome escape from the low (11-foot) concrete ceilings. The remainder of  the floor has similarly been outfitted with white walls, so that the paintings no longer have a concrete backdrop–a move that curator Philip Linhares is grateful for.

Coming out of the dark, in the museums art galleries. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Coming out of the dark, in one of two new galleries. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Mark Cavagnero’s office, which has racked up several civic wins recently, also had to figure out how to cover the central stairway, exposed to the sky. To complement the concrete, they first considered a canopy of zinc, rejected because it was softer and not as durable as their final choice, stainless steel.  According to architect John Fung, the stainless steel is brushed in a “non-directional” way, so that it appears to glow rather than glint.

Interestingly, the day after the press tour, another museum in the neighboring city of Berkeley was in the news. The Berkeley Art Museum lost its new home, which was going to be designed by conceptual master Toyo Ito, due to lack of funding. But it’s definitely moving out at some point, and the fate of the 1970 Mario Ciampi building, another Brutalist classic, is undetermined.  That space is quite lofty, but that openness comes at the price of stability, apparently. Fortunately, the Oakland Museum of California has raised nearly all of the funds necessary to complete its renovation.

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