UC Berkeley is in dialogue. Not just the students, but the buildings themselves, marking the campus’s progression and growth with their varied styles and aesthetics.
The first impression of UC Berkeley’s campus is not a cohesive one. Wheeler Hall stands near the center of campus, an old stately building appreciated for its white marble pillars and sweeping steps. Evans, coined the “ugliest building on campus” by many, was built more than half a century later. It tells a different story of the university, its utilitarian structure representing the campus’s rapid expansion and increasing focus on functionality after World War II. These stories exist in concert with one another — Berkeley’s architecture frames a larger campus personality that defines it as a dynamic whole.
Like its student body, UC Berkeley’s buildings stress diversity. The corinthian columns that adorn earlier buildings such as Wheeler offer a desirable contrast to multistoried monoliths such as Evans and Barrows that were constructed midcentury. Creekside buildings such as the Faculty Club maintain a more woodsy aesthetic, with a homey assortment of carved beams and stained-glass windows constructed at the turn of the 20th century.
UC Berkeley’s buildings, as expressed by the retired campus architect Ed Denton, operate as an “ensemble” rather than a strict “collection” — with compatible-yet-different designs that continue to progress in present day.
This is apparent in the ongoing development of Lower Sproul Plaza. Set for completion in 2015, the new building will be a new mark of history on UC Berkeley — a modern structure to add to the ensemble Denton mentioned. While this construction stemmed from the seismic inconsistencies of Eshleman Hall and the school’s inability to obtain state funding, the entire movement was student driven and independent of any single, authoritative figure. Campus architecture, in this case, acts as a marker for how the university may be shifting toward a more student-oriented visage.
As the campus grows on Sproul and otherwise, there is also an ongoing effort to preserve Berkeley’s design, varied though it may be. A UC Berkeley design review committee advises the campus architect and ensures that new buildings are consistent with both the campus’ historic and natural themes. The East Asian Library may differ from its neighbor, Doe, but it actually was deliberately placed. Its symmetrical structure, trilayered construction, tile roof and granite material are meant to complement its more classical counterpart.
UC Berkeley started as just a couple buildings. The only remnant of the original campus is South Hall, which sits across from the Campanile. The beginning of the UC Berkeley campus as it is today can be traced back to the “International Competition for the Phoebe Hearst Architectural Plan” in 1898.
The competition arose from the early rivalry between the Hearst and Stanford families. The Hearst family began investing in the UC Berkeley campus to counteract the creation of Stanford University. The Hearsts wanted a campus design to rival its neighbor.
Frenchman Emile Benard won the competition, but campus construction was actually implemented by John Galen Howard, who went on to father the campus’s department of architecture. Howard oversaw the construction of almost twenty buildings in the Beaux-Art classical style, involving extreme symmetry, arched openings and a grandiose Roman flair. The “classical core” includes the Hearst Greek Theater, the Doe Memorial Library, Wheeler Hall, the Campanile and a number of other similarly constructed buildings.
The next major phase of campus construction coincided with the end of World War II, which saw a heavy increase in enrollment. This sparked a huge boom between the 1950s and 1970s of utilitarian buildings which students today would simply brand “ugly,” including the largely abhorred Evans Hall, Cory Hall, Wurster Hall and more. These buildings adhere to the concrete “Brutalist” aesthetic that dominated this time period.
This drastic shift in style stemmed from a general desire to preserve campus space. By increasing each building’s height, campus planners were able to preserve UC Berkeley’s open atmosphere and natural “park” areas like Strawberry Creek.
“One way to look at these buildings is that they conserve the campus park,” says Emily Marthinsen, UC Berkeley’s current campus architect.
Marthinsen prefers UC Berkeley’s wide assortment of styles to the traditional sense of “geometry” most college campuses maintain. It’s replaced by what she calls a “mediated conversation between the natural landscape and the classical core.”
The conversation is a powerful one. While on the outset, campus structure seems steeped in discord, UC Berkeley is united in its separateness.